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Creativity in Comps: The Physics of the Piano

June 5, 2006

Senior physics major Adam Witt (Champlin, Minn.) found an interesting way to use his interrogative exercise, otherwise known as “comps,” to combine his academic interest with a more personal one. Witt has played the piano since the second grade, and thus the idea of studying the physics of the piano intrigued him. His piano teacher at Carleton came up with the idea, which Witt liked because, as he says, “it connects physics with the real world.”

The project focused on both the action of pressing a key that in turn causes the hammer to hit the string, and the sound waves produced by the strings. His musical knowledge served him well throughout the project; at times he found himself explaining musical concepts to his physics professors. The professors, in turn, “kept me in check,” says Witt, “and made sure I didn’t assume that they understood all the music concepts I was using.”

The intersection of the two fields was perhaps the most interesting aspect of Witt’s project. Both music and physics faculty were present at his comps talk (held earlier spring term), and many asked questions about the other discipline. Indeed, says Witt, his piano teacher “started talking about physics during my lessons.” Although Witt doesn’t plan to continue working in this branch of physics, he was glad to have picked a topic that piqued his interest and that of so many others.

Written by Nathan Kennedy ’07