Music 170: Musical Acoustics
Spring quarter 2021. University of California, San Diego
Section ID 48239

Course notes: Acoustics for Musicians and Artists
Meetings: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11:00-21:20, online
Instructor: Professor Miller Puckette, CPMC 251, 858-534-4823,,
Instructional Assistants:
Ke Chen, kec204 (at) ucsd (dot) edu;
Vahid Jahandari, vjahanda (at) ucsd (dot) edu.
Matthew Chung, mfchung (at) ucsd (dot) edu.

This course is designed to give students of the digital arts an understanding of the workings of sound, not only in traditional musical roles but also as a medium that is used in many different artistic practices. Four main areas concern us. First, how sound behaves in the real world and how it is represented electronically. Second, how and what we hear when the air moves. Third, sound technologies: computers, microphones and speakers, musical instruments. Finally, sound and its artistic uses.

Although there are online course notes, much of the content of the course is presented in class, so it is essential to attend regularly. In general, the course notes cover technical topics and classes cover aesthetic and practical ones.

There are 8 (or 9) lab assignments that use the Pure Data programming environment, which you should download. You can get it from You will also need this Pd library for acoustics. Each lab writeup should fit on a page (or two at the most) and be uploaded in PDF format (just the report; there's no need to upload your patch).

There are also two assigned projects. Each project can take the form of a soundfile, a video, or (for the second one) a writeup of a technical project. In the case of an audio or audiovisual project, the project should be accompanied by a paragraph-long explanation of what the project aims to achieve artistically. You will be required to check in every week with an instructional assistant to describe what you're doing and how it's going, and to get whatever help and advice you need.

The 20 lectures are all recorded and will be gathering here. (That's a public site, so don't say anything you don't want your grandmother to hear).

More about project #1. The prompt for this project is these two short recorded sounds: the original laugh track from the TV show Ozzie and Harriet, and the famous Wilhelm scream. (The Wilhelm recording has six versions; the fourth is the widely used one). Project 1 may be any artistic use of sound that refers to, or reacts to, these two recordings. (If you can't figure out a meaningful way to pull them both in, it's OK to just use one, but it will be far more interesting if you can connect the two of them somehow.) You may use any production tools you want, although in class we will only be using the Pure Data acoustics library and Audacity. Those two by themselves should give you plenty of different possibilities.

About contract grading. This course uses a form of contract grading, in which students, instructional assistants, and the professor agree in advance on each student's grading objective. For some background on the idea, see for instance You may contract for a C, a B, or an A. In considering what to contract, remember to plan for the amount of time you are committing to spend on your projects. Please turn in your proposed contract by class time on April 8. You and your instructor should have agreed to your contract by class time, April 15. Here are three sample contracts.

C Contract: Turn in all the 8 weekly lab assignments, by their due dates, and a final lab assignment by Tuesday of finals week. There is no artistic creativity needed; you only need to gain some facillty using the Pure Data environment and the acoustics library, and carry out a series of psychoacoustical and acoustical eperiments, turning in a short (1-page) report for each.

B Contract: Turn in the labs as described above, but instead of the ninth one (the final lab), turn in the two projects on their due dates. along with a paragraph-long description of what your artistic or scientific goal was and what you achieved. Check in with your IA every week to report on your progress.

A Contract: Turn in each of the projects early (April 22 and May 20), and on the following scheduled IA meeting, discuss with your IA how the project went. Turn in revised versions (still with explanatory paragraph) by the regular due date.

Schedule at a glance:

Detailed contents:

Part 1. digital sound recording

Week 1 (Mar. 30, Apr. 1). Recording and playback.
Theory: Amplitudes, frequencies, and samples.
Practical skills: Learn to use a sound editor (Audacity) and the Pd library for acoustics.
Course notes: chapter 1
Lab #1 is due April 8.
Project #1: Exploratory project featuring Ozzie and Harriet laugh track and/or the Wilhelm Scream. Proposal due April 8. "A" contract: first draft due April 22, finished project due May 6. "B" contract: due May 6.
related class: 174.

Week 2 (Apr. 6-8). editing and montage.
Theory: levels, gains, and superpositions.
Practical skills: sound editing using Audacity
Course notes: chapter 2
Lab #2 is due April 15.
related class: 173

Part 2. deeper into the sound

Week 3 (Apr. 13-15). sound and vibration, pitch and loudness.
Theory: spectra and filtering.
Practical skills: Additive and subtractive synthesis.
Course notes: sections 3.1 - 3.3
Lab #3 is due April 22.
related classes: 171, 175

Week 4 (Apr. 20-22). hearing and psychoacoustics.
Theory: Critical bands, loudness and timbre
Practical skills: balancing sounds in a mix
Course notes: section 3.4
Lab #4 is due April 29.
related class: 175

Week 5 (Apr. 27-29). tonality and the overtone series.
Theory: Helmholz theory of consonance; just and tempered intervals
Practical skills: polyphonic synthesis
Course notes: chapter 4
Lab #5 is due May 6.
related classes: 101 (prerequisite 2), 106, 114

Week 6 (May 4-6). sound in space.
Theory: frequency, wavelength, and superposition
Practical skills: panning, reverberation
Course notes: chapters 6 and 7
Lab #6 is due May 13.
related class: 176 (Prof. Yadegari)

Part 3. applications to music and visual arts

Week 7 (May 11-13). the voice.
Theory: vocal production, phonemes, language, speech and singing
Practical skills: using the voice in music and sound art
Course notes: chapter 5
Lab #7 is due May 20.
related classes: 174

Week 8 (May 18-20). audio synthesis.
Theory: applying nonlinear functions to sounds
Practical skills: frequency modulation
Course notes: chapter 8
Lab #8 is due June 1.
related classes: 171, 172

Week 9 (May 25-27). sound art; sound studies
Theory and Practice: reviews and topics as needed
Lab #9 is due June 8.
related class: 176 (Prof. Hankins)

Week 10 (June 1-3). compositional algorithms.
Theory: throws of the dice and permutations
Practical skills: arpeggiators
related class: 177

Project #2 is due Tuesday, June 8.
There are three prompts for the second project - choose one:
1. Make either a piece or an experiment that focuses on a Shepard tone (sometimes called a Shepard/Risset tone): a musical sound that can rise or fall in pitch indefinitely without actually moving. (There are references to this idea all over the web.)
2. Make a piece out of recorded or synthesized bird calls. (Hint: ornery birds might be more fun to work with than sweet-sounding ones).
3. Make a piece centered on the idea of transformation: something appears to be one thing at the beginning but emerges as something else at the end.
The prompt should be central to the piece, not just added in; i.e., don't just add a couple of bird calls to an existing project, but make the whole project be about the bird calls (or similarly with the other two prompts).