Fundamentals of Music and Sound

Fall 2019Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Tuesdays and Fridays, 12:00 – 1:50pm
326 West Hall
download syllabus as PDF

In this course, we will build a shared lan­guage about sound and music that will help us to bet­ter share our enjoy­ment of music with one anoth­er. We will first devel­op a rich col­lec­tion of tools and meth­ods for describ­ing sound — whether phys­i­cal­ly, qual­i­ta­tive­ly, or metaphor­i­cal­ly — and we will exer­cise those tools through writ­ing, exten­sive con­ver­sa­tion, and col­lab­o­ra­tive projects. We will then turn our atten­tion to the fun­da­men­tals of West­ern musi­cal nota­tion, a con­stant­ly evolv­ing graph­i­cal sys­tem that musi­cians have used for hun­dreds of years to both describe and pre­scribe music. Final­ly, we will explore how nota­tion and oth­er fun­da­men­tals of music the­o­ry have evolved in the era of dig­i­tal musicianship.

Upcoming Meetings

Oops! On Accidentals, Leaps, and (Tentative) Steps.

Friday October 18th, 2019

What's the difference between a leap and a step, and what does that have to do with the moon. And how on earth can we fix the bizarre staff system using accidentals?

assignments due

Click the Start Challenge button and then identify the pitches shown by clicking the appropriate buttons. Repeat the exercise as many times as you need in order to get a score of at least 18 out of 20 answers. Your grade for this assignment will be the average of this score and that from exercise 2. When you are done, click the View Report button, then enter your name and hit the Sign Report button. Finally, hit the Copy Link button and paste the link into the appropriate field in the homework submission form (see below).

Click this assignment in the same way as before. This time, however, you need to identify the pitch-class of the indicated pitch, as an integer between 0 and 11. Repeat the exercise as many times as you'd like, until you get a minimum score of 18/20.

Use this form to submit the links for your completed exercises.

Intervals: Measuring Distance in Pitch Space

Tuesday October 22nd, 2019

Sort of like with pitches and pitch classes, we will discuss generic and specific intervals. We will enjoy using the word "notch" and we will have even more fun thinking about addition and subtraction in mod-12 space.

assignments forthcoming

How Pitch Affects Rhythmic Notation

Friday October 25th, 2019

We'll practice identifying intervals and we'll see how pitch impacts the way in which we notate rhythms. We will also discuss BEAMING 🚀.

assignments forthcoming

Exam: Fundamentals of Notation

Tuesday October 29th, 2019

This exam will cover everything discussed in Unit II (Fundamentals of Notation).


Attendance at this class is especially important. If you can't make it, please give me as much notice as possible so we can work out another time for you to take the exam!

no assignments due
III. Pitch and Rhythm at Larger "Scales"

Tonality, Scales, and Pitch Hierarchy

Friday November 1st, 2019

What are scales and what do they contribute to music? How are they made and how do they suggest a hierarchy amongst pitches?

assignments forthcoming

The Chords that Bind Us?

Tuesday November 5th, 2019

We will discuss a variety of chords through the lenses of cardinality and quality. Triads and seventh chords will be center of our focus for the remainder of the course.

assignments forthcoming

Relating Chords and Scales

Friday November 8th, 2019

We can think of chords as drawing from scales and further organizing them into a palpable hierarchy.

assignments forthcoming

Tonal Harmonic Function

Tuesday November 12th, 2019

By extending the idea of scale degrees to Roman numerals, we'll learn how chords are typically arranged in tonal music.

assignments forthcoming

The Idea of Form

Friday November 15th, 2019

Examining musical examples from a variety of media and traditions, we will discuss how rhythm, harmony, and other musical factors contribute to our sense of musical structure.

assignments forthcoming

Group Project: Transcription Idol

Tuesday November 19th, 2019

The tables are turned when you have to teach the class how to sing a song. (kazoos are optional)


Attendance at this class is especially important. If you can't make it, please give me as much notice as possible so we can work out an alternative project for you!

assignments forthcoming
IV. Music in a Digital Age

A Practical Introduction to Digital Audio

Friday November 22nd, 2019

We will learn how DAWs, Drum Machines, and Virtual Instruments have revolutionized the production of music.

assignments forthcoming

The Fine Art of Sampling Fine Art of Sampling

Tuesday November 26th, 2019

We will examine the tools and ideas behind sampling as a compositional practice.

assignments forthcoming


Friday November 29th, 2019

Stoically, we will consider the meditative value of washing dishes.


Good luck with Thanksgiving. Safe travels!

no assignments due

Virtual Instruments and Digital Orchestras

Tuesday December 3rd, 2019

We will take a closer look at the tools and methods used to make music for film, television, and video games.

assignments forthcoming

Spotify and the Art of Relaxation

Friday December 6th, 2019

We will examine the cultural force of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as the ubiquitous access to music they facilitate.

assignments forthcoming

Regarding Your Precious Feelings

Tuesday December 10th, 2019

In light of everything else we've discussed, how can we talk about our feelings in response to music? Is music a vehicle for social manipulation, a dangerous tool, a beautiful weapon, something more boring, something more sinister?

assignments forthcoming

Past Meetings

Introduction: What is this class about?

Friday August 30th, 2019

We'll meet one another, go over some class logistics, and then ask the question: What the heck is the difference between sound and music?

no assignments due
I. Describing Sound

Six Qualitative Perspectives on Sound

Friday September 6th, 2019

We begin with a stirring examination of the physical basis of sound. Then we explore six perspectives that help to describe it: pitch, timbre, intensity, duration, location, and source.


This is the class where everybody gets a kazoo!
Please. Treat your kazoo with compassion.

assignments due

I've made this brief survey so I can learn about your past experiences with music and better tailor the course to your needs and interests. Don't worry if you don't know all of the answers!

In the music world, a collection of music that has been gathered together for research is often called a corpus. We are going to build one together.

Your mission is to share two pieces of music with the class — one that you love and another that you (love to) hate. Give this some thought. We are going to use the music that you post here throughout the semester.

  1. Add a row to the linked spreadsheet for each song including the title, artist, genre (as you see it), and a public link to where we can listen to the song on Youtube, Vimeo, or something similar.

  2. Look at the spreadsheet before you add your music! You are not allowed to repeat anything that's already been posted!

On Pitch

Tuesday September 10th, 2019

How is it that some sounds seem "pitchy" while others do not? What is the physical basis for "pitchiness" and how is it that some sounds are higher or lower than others?


Links to in-class exercises:

Vocal range spreadsheet

EARFQUAKE Analysis Folder

no assignments due

Timbre is not Wood

Friday September 13th, 2019

What's the difference between Beyoncé and a classroom full of engineers playing Beyoncé on kazoos?


Please bring a laptop to class, as well as headphones that you can get to work with the Max 8 patch that we used in Tuesday's class. If you had trouble with wireless headphones, I suggest trying wired ones. I will bring two pairs of extra wired headphones with me to class and will loan them out on a first come, first serve basis.

In advance of this class, please also install Audacity on your computer. It is free and runs on Windows, MacOS, and Linux.

To keep track of the various software tools we will be using in class, I've created the FoMaS_Tools folder on Dropbox, where you can always go to find the latest and greatest versions of whatever we're using in class.

In-class Materials

The Clarinet from Four Perspectives
Worksheet | Recordings

assignments due
The Two Hallelujahs

Using pitch as your guiding perspective, you are going to compare two renditions of the song Hallelujah. The song was originally written and sung by Leonard Cohen, but the most famous recording of it is by Jeff Buckley, a singer / song-writer famous particularly for his large vocal range. There are many features that differentiate the two versions, but you will focus on pitch in your analysis.

Head to the assignment folder (on Dropbox) and check out the !README_Instructions.pdf file for the details.

Good luck!

Another Long-winded and Intense Class

Tuesday September 17th, 2019

We'll consider how length is a ubiquitous metaphor for duration and we'll connect the ideas of loudness, dynamic, and intensity.

assignments due
Frequencies, Pitches, and Pitch-classes

In this assignment, you are going to identify prominent frequencies within three sounds and then name those frequencies in terms of pitch and pitch-class space. If you wish, you’ll also have an opportunity to step outside of 12TET pitch space for extra credit.

For complete instructions, check out the !README_Instructions file in the assignment folder.

Wherefore Art Thou, Sound?

Friday September 20th, 2019

The location of a sound-producing body affects the way in which its sound reaches our ears. At the same time, our conception of the source of a sound profoundly shapes our response to it.

no assignments due


Tuesday September 24th, 2019

As a physical phenomenon, sound always travels through a medium. In a different sense, so too does music. We'll think about headphones, car radios, television, movies, and other media that make the conditions in which we experience music.

no assignments due
II. Fundamentals of Notation

Introduction to Musical Notation

Friday September 27th, 2019

We'll take a whirlwind tour through the history of (Western) musical notation and discuss some of its fundamental principals.

assignments due
Two Amazing Graces

Listen to these two renditions of Amazing Grace, the first by LeAnn Rimes and the second by President Barack Obama. Then write around 500 words about how the contexts of these performances impacts your experience of them. Does it matter that one of them is a news broadcast? What about the number of people involved? The quality of the performances? The audio quality?

Submit your response to this form.

The Basics of Rhythm

Tuesday October 1st, 2019

We'll talk about the lengths of notes and rests; we'll gawk at flags and gaze longingly at beams; and we see how we can tie it all together to make a nice whole (note).

no assignments due

Project: Description Telephone

Friday October 4th, 2019

You will put your musical descriptions to the test and see how well the class can guess which pieces are yours.


You will work in groups to describe a song of your choice using the qualitative perspectives on sound as a framework. You’ll present your description to the class and the rest of us will try to guess what song you’re talking about!

Take the notation survey here!

assignments due
Song Description

For full project instructions, please see this document.

Meter, Time Signatures, and Tempo

Tuesday October 8th, 2019

What is a beat, anyways, and how can we write them down? We'll also talk about repeating patterns of rhythm through meter and time signatures. Finally, we'll examine the bizarre relativism of tempo.

no assignments due


Friday October 11th, 2019

I'll be having fun somewhere else. You're on your own.


Don't come to class.
No one is going be there.
It will be lonely and probably cold, too.

no assignments due

The Basics of Pitch

Tuesday October 15th, 2019

We'll distinguish between pitches and pitch-classes and we'll learn about several ways of visualizing them: graphing them as integers, using the keyboard (a la piano), and on a staff with clefs.


There will be a brief quiz at beginning of class. It will cover:

  • Note Duration
  • Rest Duration
  • Dots and Ties
  • Measures and Time Signatures
  • Tempo
  • Two short and simple rhythmic dictation exercises
assignments due

Check out the following lessons on If you have any issues with the rest of the homework, these lessons might be helpful resources for you!

  1. Note Duration
  2. Rest Duration
  3. Dots and Ties
  4. Measures and Time Signatures
Rhythmic Dictations

In this Dropbox folder, you will find four recordings of short rhythmic dictations. Download the attached dictation document and notate the rhythm for each example. Check your work using the answers given on the second page of the document.