Students extract principles
of engineering from rock ’n’ roll © March 20, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Freshmen students at Norwich are introduced to fundamental engineering concepts by rebuilding their favorite songs.

©iStockphoto.com/U.P.imagesFreshmen students at Norwich are introduced to fundamental engineering concepts by rebuilding favorite songs in the MATLAB programming environment.

If the freshmen students in Engineering 110 are successful with their lab assignments, the room is going to rock.

And it does. Familiar riffs from songs by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Green Day and Guns N’ Roses drifted from rows of computers in a classroom of Norwich University. Some sounded a bit thin, poorly cadenced or awkward. Others were instantly recognizable.

“Nice!” shouted Jonathan Giannino after hearing a few seconds of the distinctive opening notes from AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” from across the room. A mechanical engineering major from Randolph, Vt., Giannino didn’t look up from his screen, but continued to mouse through folders and icons to his own project. Giannino chose the song “Torches” by Rise Against. He opened a music player on the computer, and his version of the song began. It sounded a bit like a cheap synthesizer, or, as he put it, “like it came from an Atari.”

These students are future engineers, not musicians. For four weeks, they’ve been immersed in an award-winning academic program that uses music to introduce them to fundamental concepts in math, programming and the physics of sound. The Guitar Tab Project, designed by electrical engineering Professor Jacques Beneat, challenges them to create music using nothing more than a numeric coding and programming environment called MATLAB and guitar tablature, available on the Internet for virtually any song.

The first year is really critical for engineering.

~ Jacques Beneat,
Norwich electrical
engineering professor

Tablature is a simple form for writing guitar music, usually assembled by enthusiastic amateurs and posted free to anyone who wants it. Instead of common musical notation that conveys pitch and timing by notes sitting on a staff, tablature depicts the six strings of a guitar and the point where notes should be fretted. The problem, according to Beneat, is that tablature is often incorrect, and different versions of a song vary dramatically. That frustration helped with his development of the project.

“If I can check if the guitar tab sounds right, then I will take the time to practice,” he said.

Inspiration for the project began several years ago when Beneat, who has always been interested in radios and sound, decided to realize a lifelong dream and buy an electric guitar. Laughing at his own lack of prowess on the instrument, Beneat said he initially fantasized about a program that would take the information from tablature and play it back so he wouldn’t waste time with a poor musical transcription.

Guitar Tab Project, which evolves with each new class of freshmen, aims to have students experiment with this idea. More importantly, it helps young engineers stay engaged with their studies. This is a big issue, he said. Freshmen face a daunting schedule of mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer science. By tying their studies to music, he hopes they’ll be able to relate to the fundamental concepts better, and have a little fun.

“The first year is really critical for engineering,” said Beneat.

To be successful, a student must figure out how to measure and program the proper sine wave for each guitar string from digital samples, then input additional information about the length of the note and the fret into MATLAB, along with characteristics of the sound, such as reverb and distortion. It’s not easy, as tablature is a relatively unsophisticated way to represent music. After getting a computer to play sounds, there’s still a lot of tweaking and testing of values before it starts to resemble a song.

“The first time it didn’t work at all,” said Giannino, who said it has been a challenging four weeks to get where they are. “I actually had to redo all this stuff.”

Norwich University is the country’s oldest private military university, where students choose to be a cadet or lead a traditional college lifestyle. Engineering is a popular major.

Kathryn Bennett, a part-time student who lives in Northfield, Vt., where Norwich’s campus is located, took the class primarily to learn MATLAB, which is widely used in industry and academia. She found it similar to other programming languages, and thought the tablature project was an interesting bridge to a better understanding.

“I gained a lot more familiarity with MATLAB. I guess I’m just a lot more interested in it,” she said.

Beneat’s paper, “Designing a Guitar Tab Player in MATLAB,” was awarded a grant through the Institute for Electricians and Electrical Engineers’ Real World Engineering Projects program, which was designed to disseminate interesting projects to faculty of first-year engineering students. He plans to continue with the project, increasing the range of tones and sophistication of input values. One day, he may work with students to build programs that write tablature directly off a CD.

“It seems possible,” he laughed, “but it’s very complicated.”