Physics students play electric guitars to learn about quantum mechanics

Physics has turned funky at the University of Sussex, with students strumming electric guitars to learn about some of the most challenging concepts of their subject.

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Dr Winfried Hensinger, senior lecturer in atomic molecular and optical physics, is running a course for his second-year students after realising that more than 60 per cent of them were also aspiring rock musicians. "It's a way of making physics meaningful to them," he says.  "We can use guitars and amps to understand frequency analysis and sound harmonics - some of the fundamentals of physics. It's a perfect combination of learning and fun!"

Dr Hensinger, who has been learning the electric guitar himself for the past year, asks his students to work out the difference between the sound made by the world-famous Fender Stratocaster, favoured by Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour and a host of other rock gods, and a cheaper version made by Fender.

Specialized computer equipment is used to analyse the sounds made by the instruments and to learn concepts such as frequency analysis of sound and the foundations of wave theory. Wave theory forms the basis of quantum physics, which is Dr Hensinger's primary area of research.

Students also analyze the difference between traditional valve amplifiers and more modern solid state amplifiers and learn the physics behind the pick-up of an electric guitar.

Sussex graduate Armando Lacerda developed the teaching experiment under the supervision of Dr Hensinger for his final-year project last year. Armando is an experienced guitarist, a recording artist for the last eight years and was deeply interested in how the different aspects of the electric guitar could be described by physical concepts. "When carrying out my final year project I realized how much physics is involved in playing the guitar," he says.  "It is fascinating."

"Innovation in teaching is one of my great interests," adds Dr Hensinger. "Physics is often seen as a difficult subject, but if you can find ways of inspiring young students by tapping into their own interests, you can help them understand some of the most difficult concepts of the physical world."



Notes for editors

 Dr Winfried Hensinger heads the Ion Quantum Technology Group in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex and also carries out research in innovations in tertiary education (email:, Ph.: +44 (1273) 877672).

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 11 December 2009