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Exploratorium's 'Science of Music'

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One of the phenomena that the last example illustrates is that tile bathrooms are great places for reverb, and as one of the collection of Questions points out, bathroom decor can also increase a sound's volume and bass - which is why your singing sounds better in the shower. Other questions explore why some music can elicit emotional -and even physical- reactions, how opera singers can hold those impossibly long notes, and even how chewing on a cinnamon stick is a cure for earworms.

A co-worker at my day job recently struggled with a tune "stuck" in her head. (More tragic is the fact that the tune in question is "99 Luftballoons" - a song she neither likes nor knows.) Why some pieces of music are more effective than others at resonating in memory, and why no single melody is capable of doing it to everybody, is a question of science as much as art - as are questions of why certain music gives us goose bumps, or how much what we see affects what we think we hear.

Of course, the leader in the science of things we "don't-tend-to-look-at-scientifically" is San Francisco's Exploratorium, and following on previous investigations into the science of Baseball, Cycling, and Hockey, the museum's website has now added the Science of Music to its online collection. So take heart - soon you'll know exactly why your neighbor's stereo always seems to have the bass turned up to eleven.

A rare non-sporting installment in the "Science of" series, Music opens with a rotating collection of questions: "Why does my singing sound so great in the shower?" and "Why do some songs get stuck in my head?" (It turns out that my co-worker's condition even has a name, "earworms.") The right and bottom sections of the page hold invitations and links to the site's three sections - Online Exhibits, more quasi-universal Questions, and a collection of short Movies.

The Exhibits use sound samples and percussion to demonstrate most of the principles under investigation. (No three-part harmonies or contrapuntal melodic construction from scratch here.) Exhibit examples include: The "Dot Mixer" - which allows at-home producers to drag sound sources (dots) around the screen, choosing audio elements and adjusting such variables as volume, and left-right stereo orientation. Meanwhile, a set of buttons at the bottom of the screen can change the overall sound of each new arrangement from Bluegrass, to Tubular Bells, to something that sounds like the soundtrack from a b movie South Pacific island.


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