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Come Blow Your Horn: Exploring the Physics of Brass Instruments

Brian Holmes employs various brass instruments to demonstrate the basic physics principles behind them.
Brian Holmes employs various brass instruments to demonstrate the basic physics principles behind them.

The day before his scheduled talk at the APS Centennial meeting on the physics of brass instruments, physicist/musician/composer Brian Holmes found himself dashing about downtown Atlanta desperately searching for a trumpet in music and instrument repair shops. The instrument he normally uses for lectures had been sent via trunk two weeks before, but somehow didn't arrive on the appointed day. Fortunately he acquired a suitable replacement in time, and the lecture came off without a hitch.

Having an appropriate instrument is critical to his demonstrations, because Holmes likes to build a trumpet piece by piece, to better explain the acoustical significance of each part: the mouthpiece, a conical leadpipe, a cylindrical section, and a flared bell. This helps emphasize the unique nature of the instrument, which does not simply transmit sound into a room. Instead, most of the sound stays inside the trumpet, forming standing waves that draw energy from the player's lips. Holmes also likes to conclude by performing Beethoven's Sonata in F, Op. 17 for horn and piano on a valveless horn, similar to those used in the composer's time. "In the era before valves, horn players learned to augment their meager supply of open notes by partially or completely blocking the air column with their hands," he explains, a technique that is now obsolete, although modern players still keep one hand on the bell. In fact, there has been a resurgence of interest in authentic period instrumentation, evidenced by the existence of such groups as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Baroque Orchestra of Boston.

Holmes' interest in science was evident early on, coinciding with his love of music and proficiency as a horn player. He took courses in both as an undergraduate. But ultimately he decided to major in physics, not just because he wanted to teach, but because "my earliest physics courses taught me how unobservant I was about the universe, and how observant I should have been." But he admits that the decision wasn't easy. "I wasn't brave enough to major in music," he confesses, nor did he have his parents' approval, or any professional musicians to serve as role models. "Somehow I imagined that profess ional horn players were godlike creatures who never missed notes." It wasn't until his graduate studies at Boston University, when he signed up for a subscription to the Boston Symphony, that he realized how many notes professional musicians actually miss in public, and that "I was only a couple of years' practice from that level myself."

By then, of course, he was well on his way to a career as a physicist, earning his PhD in experimental low temperature physics in 1980. Holmes joined the faculty of San Jose State University 14 years ago, and has remained there ever since, carrying on the business of a professor of physics, teaching, and publishing the occasional research article or textbook. But physics hasn't dampened his love for music, or kept him from performing. He still teaches the occasional course in the physics of music, and as a graduate student in Boston, he played at various downtown theaters and occasionally sat in with the Boston Pops and Opera. And he performed regularly on a freelance basis for the San Jose Symphony and San Jose Opera until quite recently, when family obligations began to impinge on his availability for auditions and scheduled performances.

As his ability to perform has waned, composing original music has taken center stage, because "it doesn't depend on how good my lip is feeling that day." Holmes first attempted to write music in the 7th grade, a self-described "fiasco." Nor did he find his musical theory courses in college very inspiring, since the instructor was an advanced academic who believed strongly in atonal music. Holmes wrote the score for the school show instead of signing up for a composition course. "It's only in the last 10 years that I learned not to feel guilty about writing tonal music, and it was a very liberating thought," he says. The healthy number of commissioned works and public performances of his pieces attest to his success in following his musical instincts.

Holmes is particularly interested in exploring the relationship between words and music in his compositions, and hence rarely writes purely instrumental pieces. Occasionally he even manages to work physics into the musical equation: he recently completed a six-song cycle entitled Updike's Science, with lyrics drawn from novelist John Updike's comments on science. "There's physics in music and there's music in physics," he says of his increasingly dualistic career. "I've managed to straddle that boundary."


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
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