Stephen Dyer: Where Music Meets Engineering

An IEEE member’s college course brings together two creative disciplines

4 February 2013
2w.profile Photo: Tommy Theis

Do Johann Sebastian Bach and Albert Einstein have anything in common? Can musicians and engineers learn anything from one another? For IEEE Fellow Stephen Dyer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, the answer to both these questions is a resounding “Yes!”

“The creative processes in music and engineering—composition in music and design in engineering—are very similar,” says Dyer, who helped develop and now teaches an interdisciplinary course for music and engineering majors called “Signals, Systems and Music.”

“Organizational considerations in music of melody, harmony, and rhythm are not entirely different from those in engineering of frequency, amplitude, and time. They simply constitute a change in perspective.”

Dyer, at the university since 1983, teaches the course together with a music professor. Music and engineering majors learn about the fundamentals of each other’s disciplines and then team up in their final projects to compose musical pieces using technology. “It’s hard to describe adequately my enjoyment of these interdisciplinary partnerships,” Dyer says. “I’ve seen how inventive students can be when we give them a little preparation, some encouragement, and creative license.”

The course was first held in the fall 2012 semester, and this year’s course has already gotten under way.

How did Dyer get the idea to combine the two disciplines? He did so after he realized there was an intersection between the two: creativity.

The class’s roots date only to 2009, when Dyer visited Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., as a guest speaker on creativity and entrepreneurship. While there, Dyer met with the chair of the ECE department, who, he says, “told me he wanted to get electrical and computer engineering students exposed to creative thinking and [to] learn that disciplinary boundaries are somewhat artificial.”

Dyer, also a musician, had an idea of just how to do that.

“I suggested that he combine music and engineering into a single course, offer it to students studying those majors, and show them how the creative processes in the two disciplines are similar,” he says. The chair liked the idea and, with his university’s approval, an experimental course was offered in the spring 2010 semester. The class covered music theory and engineering fundamentals. It proved extremely popular, with virtually all of Rowan’s ECE freshmen having taken the course on subsequent offerings, according to Dyer.

A year later, Dyer launched a similar course at Kansas State. He and colleagues from Rowan and Kansas State applied for and received a National Science Foundation grant and began planning the course for the fall 2012 semester. Craig Weston, a Kansas State composition professor, signed on to teach the course with Dyer.

Much of their course was based on a music class that covered music synthesis (using electronics to generate sounds) and composition.

Lessons covered the basic physics of musical sound, the elements of music within a composition—for example, time and key signatures—and electronic generation of musical sound (such as by a synthesizer). It also included fundamental engineering concepts such as frequency, harmonics, amplification, filtering, and frequency modulation, as well as how they’re connected to music. During the semester, teams of students learn to use various technologies, such as analog music synthesizers and editing software, to compose a musical piece that is played in the final class.

“We also added other lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and homework related to engineering concepts and their relationship to basic concepts in music,” he says. “Through music composition from an engineering-systems point of view, students are exposed to the fundamentals of both music and engineering, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the disciplines and, we hope, awakening their creativity.”

Although Dyer has spent most of his career as an engineering professor, music has been a passion since an early age. “Music is a very emotional language and an outlet for me,” Dyer says. Growing up, he took piano lessons, and he played the pipe organ in high school. “I’ve spent time with Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and friends,” he says.

Over the years, Dyer also played rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and the blues as a bass guitarist and keyboard player and took saxophone and drum lessons as well. He also had an early interest in engineering and science. “Thomas Edison was perhaps my biggest hero in grade school,” he says. “The notion of invention intrigued me. I wanted to discover and devise.” His love of creating and taking things apart made engineering a natural fit when it came time for college. Dyer earned a bachelor’s in physics in 1973, a master’s in electrical engineering in 1974, and a Ph.D. in engineering in 1977, all from Kansas State.

Over the years, Dyer was an assistant professor of math and physics at Georgetown College, in Kentucky, and an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Kentucky. He finally made it back to his alma mater in 1983 as a faculty member in electrical and computer engineering.

Dyer hopes to help other universities start their own versions of the “Signals, Systems and Music” course by sharing the lectures, discussion material, lab exercises, ideas for composition projects, and more on the class’s website. “We want other institutions to use this information as a resource to develop their own courses,” he says. In the end, his goal is to spread the word that sometimes even the most seemingly different disciplines have a lot to learn from each other.

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