Aspen Music Fest and Science Center explore the physics of music |

Aspen Music Fest and Science Center explore the physics of music

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Robert McDuffie will offer a "blind sound test" of modern and 18th Century violins as part of a new series on the science of music presented by the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Science Center.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘The Science of Music,’ presented by the Aspen Science Center and the Aspen Music Festival and School

When: Today through Aug. 13

Where: Chabad Jewish Community Center, 435 W. Main St., Aspen

How much: $10

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

‘The Science of Music’ lectures

Harmonics in Music and Science, with Alan Fletcher and Andrew Cohen: Thursday, July 23, 4 p.m.

Evaluating Musical Instruments, with Elizabeth Pitcairn and Robert McDuffie: Thursday, July 30, 6 p.m.

Neuroscience of Music, with Dr. Robert Zatorre and Alan Fletcher: Thursday, Aug. 6, 6 p.m.

Pianos: How They Work, with Peter Sumner: Thursday, Aug. 13, 6 p.m.

To the uninitiated, the worlds of physics and classical music can each be an intimidating realm for novices to enter. But the Aspen Science Center and the Aspen Music Festival and School are attempting to combine the two in an accessible new lecture series pulling back the curtain on the science of music.

The new series, launching July 23 and running weekly on Thursdays through Aug. 13 at the Chabad Jewish Community Center, will explore topics such as how harmony works, whether vaunted 18th century violins sound better than their modern copies, and the inner-workings of pianos.

Thursday’s session features Andrew Cohen, a professor of physics at Boston University, explaining how sound waves work when produced by different instruments, the science behind harmonics, and how they’re affected by different acoustics.

Next week’s panel tackles the question of whether Guarneri’s and Stradivari’s violins, fabricated in the 1700s, still played by contemporary world-class violinists and routinely sold for millions of dollars, actually sound any better than instruments made today. The idea for the session, said Aspen Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher, hatched after scientists in academic journals recently purported to prove there was no difference.

The Music Fest and the Science Center will put those findings to the test using an audience’s ears. The July 30 session will feature violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn playing the 1720-made “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivarous – the famed instrument that inspired the Academy Award-winning film “The Red Violin” – and playing a modern copy. Violinist Robert McDuffie will also play various old and new instruments. They’ll then put the results up to a vote.

“We’re going to let the audience do a blind sound test,” said Fletcher, “using some modern copies and at least one Guenarerius and one Stadivarius.”

An Aug. 6 session will put Fletcher on stage with Professor Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute for an exploration of how music affects cognitive function and why humans respond to it emotionally.

The series will close on Aug. 13 with “Pianos: How They Work,” featuring the Music Festival’s head piano technician Peter Sumner – also a master technician for Steinway & Sons. Sumner will walk the audience through how a piano is made and how its celebrated sound is created from raw materials like wood, iron and steel wire.

Tickets for each session are $10. Thursday’s lecture begins at 4 p.m., the rest open at 6 p.m.