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Music and Science

From the time of Pythagoras, science and music have been intertwined. Many of the milestones of western music theory, such as Rameau’s Traité, have at least nodded to science for supplying the foundations of music. Science and music have been informally linked at Cambridge since the mid-nineteenth century. Sedley Taylor’s 1873 volume “Sound and music”, which included an account of “the chief acoustical discoveries of Professor Helmholtz”, was intended to introduce his contemporaries to the new scientific insights on music emerging from Germany, while Charles Myers, later to found Cambridge’s Experimental Psychology Laboratory, published pioneering research on non-western musical perceptions in 1905. With the institution of a paper of “Musical Acoustics” early in history of the Music Tripos, a number of distinguished researchers including Professor Sir James Beament, FRS, and Peter Zinoviev, computer music pioneer, contributed a scientific dimension to the Faculty’s teaching programme.

The scope of research in science and music at Cambridge has been expanding steadily since the mid 1980s, mirroring the developments in the subject; in 1986 Ian Cross, a specialist in music cognition, was appointed to the Faculty to teach Acoustics and to develop the Faculty’s then limited electronic music facilities, instituting in 1991 a final year course on experimental approaches to musical behaviours. Since then the scope of research in science and music in the Faculty has broadened immensely; many graduate students over the last decade have conducted original research in topics such as music and emotion, music education, developmental pitch cognition, tonal pitch structures, duration perception, sensory integration in film music perception, the experience of polyrhythms, computer modelling of musical perception and human-computer interaction. Current research areas have extended even further to include aspects of reconstructive archaeology and evolutionary theory. Graduate research in science and music can be conducted within the M.Phil in Musicology as well as in the context of a Ph.D.

In 2003 the Centre for Music and Science was established within the University Music School. Its main research goal is to enhance the possibility of interdisciplinary research that applies scientific approaches to musical and musicological issues: in other words, to attempt to engage with scientific approaches from musically- and musicologically-informed perspectives. It houses specialist facilities for experimental psychological research, computer programming, sound recording, and electroacoustic composition. All major journals in the field and most significant recent book are available within either the Pendlebury Library, the University Library or other departmental libraries.

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