Department of English

Fall 2010 Edition

If You Wish Upon a Stair

Kori Cox
Expressive 2010 1st Place
Professor: Bryce Christensen

The typical high school student would waste no time in defining science simply as a subject or a class. In this frame of mind, it would seem easy to confine science to a chemistry or biology classroom with a rare appearance in the math or history halls. However, not a single scientific thought would dare to enter into a place such as the music department. To many, it seems clear that science and music have simply no common ground. One seems so rigid and definite, and the other so flexible and free from factual clarity. However, as a student of both disciplines, I must disagree. I believe that science plays a part in all aspects of life, even in something as intangible as music. Certainly, this claim may seem a bit outlandish. Yet, when a little girl who analyzes, organizes, and categorizes suddenly meets the musical world, you cannot expect something ordinary as a result.

My adventure with music began in the fourth grade. I was enjoying school and described myself as a "good student." At this point, I wanted to know the "how" and "why" of everything. My teachers seemed willing and able to oblige me. I was learning how rocks changed form and why plants were green after all. I sat in my chair listening, learning and drinking it all in. If there was something to know, I wanted to know it. I studied and memorized every new piece of information. To me, an excited elementary student, school was all about searching and curiosity.

One morning, as I reviewed my times tables in class, I made a wonderful discovery. Something was very special about the number nine. In fact, I noticed that the digits in each of the first ten multiples of nine also had a sum of nine. For instance, the second multiple of nine is eighteen and the two digits one and eight add up to equal nine. This magnificent pattern continued with twenty-seven, thirty-six, and so forth. This discovery was pure happiness for my fourth grade self. Looking back, I am still surprised at the intense excitement that I felt simply because of the number nine. This is who I was when music found me. I was a responsible, studious, list-making, note-taking student, well on my way to a left-brained existence.

The music program in our elementary school gave us all the opportunity to play in a beginner's orchestra. Seeing it as another opportunity to learn, I jumped at the chance to be involved. Initially, my music class was very informative and educational. I began to play the violin and I loved every new thing I learned. It seemed that music was right down my alley. I memorized notes, their sequence, their appearance in each clef, and the key in which they belonged. I memorized terms and vocabulary. I knew 'allegro' from 'andante.' I understood the difference between a spiccato and a pizzicato, neither of which turned out to be pasta. I learned that "piano" was an instrument, but it was also a notation of volume.

My favorite part was the use of fractions. I was pleased to see that my music was math. I found that the counting of a rhythm was, at times, split up into halves, quarters, eighths, and even thirty-secondths. I imagined how many combinations might evolve out of such a selection. The opportunities were endless, and at times, very interesting. If I played a note for two counts, the measure still had two entire counts remaining. This empty space could be filled with two quarter notes, four eight notes, or even a two sets of triplets. I easily memorized which rest symbol represented which note value because I could determine how much of the fraction remained. Everything fit together so perfectly. As I left fourth-grade behind, I was very satisfied with my musical endeavor. It became another answer to my questions, another way to learn, and another reason to write lists. Why would I not love it?

Several years later, however, I began to question my enthusiasm. Suddenly, upon my entrance into middle school, music seemed to slip from a fact to a feeling. When we learned to tune our strings, our teacher told us to "listen until the sound felt right." We were to stop tuning when the two strings "fit together harmoniously." I was obviously quite lost. I was grasping for facts and logical reasons in a sea of vague and abstract definitions. When we learned about harmonics, our teacher defined them as a "sweet spot on the string." All I needed to do was "become one" with my instrument. My class was beginning to sound more like magic and less like music.

What surprised me was the way in which the majority of my classmates nonchalantly accepted these new methods. They nodded their heads in understanding, and soon they were floating above me in the cloud of emotion and sensation that my instructor had created. Yet, there I was, stranded on the solid ground with an armful of terms, scales and note patterns that now seemed useless. The responsible student in me tried to follow, but I could not grasp meaning out of what seemed to be thin air. I needed something of definition and substance.

As you can see, I was beginning to have a very difficult time. This manner of explanation did not seem to fulfill any purpose. This same way of teaching would certainly not survive in any other area of curriculum. Imagine a math teacher saying, "And now class, put the square root wherever you think it will find harmony with the rest of the equation." Next, visualize a chemistry teacher, with his bubbling concoction, as he instructs, "Students, please keep pouring until the mixture of these two unknown substances feels accurate to you. That's right, become one with your beaker." Obviously, no administrator would approve of these methods. Yet somehow, music had seemed to escape the logic and meaning of the real world. It had risen above science, free to float aimlessly. At least, that is what I was afraid had happened.

Fortunately, I did not keep this perspective for long. My sophomore year, a new music teacher arrived. The fact that he had once studied to be an engineer caught my attention. I did not know that someone with a scientific mind could be a successful musician. I had not thought it was possible, but there he was. I braced myself for billowing cloud castles, but he stayed on solid ground. He began with a lesson on tuning. We had all certainly heard the word before. However, he told us about the waves produced by sound. He mentioned a correlation between pitch and the frequency of each wave, and we learned that when strings are in tune, the frequencies perfectly overlap. When two notes are out of tune, they produce dissonance, which the ear hears as beats or pulses. These pulses, grow slower and slower with the change in pitch, until they disappear all together, leaving the strings perfectly in tune. Suddenly, this concept of tuning made sense to me. This instructor knew science, and he was speaking my language.

Soon after this amazing lesson, our teacher taught us about harmonics. He did not try describing them as a "sweet spot on the string," but rather as a wave whose frequency was double that of the correlating note. He mentioned that such a note existed on the exact middle of each string. Why had no one mentioned that before? I cried tears of joy as I reached happily for my ruler. After my unending and painful bewilderment the previous year, I was deeply grateful for something logical and measurable. My new teacher led me to great heights, but he did not expect me to float. Instead, he built me stairs.

From that day forward, I knew that science truly did exist everywhere, even in music. My view of education changed one harmonic at a time. Though my early years were filled with a suffocating confusion, my struggling was every bit worth the new philosophy that was shared with me in the end. Now I can say that I will never learn without looking for scientific application, and I will always take the stairs.