Finding Music in Math: Why These Two Disciplines Are So Harmonious

A double major in engineering and music involves 187 credit hours. Students like Erik Bergal, a junior pursuing a BS in civil engineering and a BA in music, experience four intense years of at least 18 credits per semester plus multiple summer courses. For being such a rigorous program, it is a widely popular field combination. Those involved in the program explain that an equal passion for both is more than enough motivation for the workload.

The combination in studies between music and engineering is no small undertaking. Students pursuing the double major often find they are committing themselves to a challenging course load. For Bergal, the desire is worthwhile. He keeps busy going back and forth between the music and engineering buildings for his oversized class load. Despite the long treks and long nights of studying, he enjoys the work. “Even if it’s eight classes at once, it’s exactly what I want to be doing,” Bergal said. The challenge for Bergal is not in completing the work. It is challenging, but he enjoys the subjects he is studying. The true test is in time management. In his studies at CU, Bergal is improving his skills as a pianist and furthering his mathematical knowledge. “[I’ve been learning] how to juggle it all [and] thrive in a busy environment,”

Bergal said.

Bergal is successful academically, finding time for studies as well as time for relaxation. “[What made it possible is] planning. That’s what saved me. [You need to] know what you’re getting into and plan it out,” Bergal advises.

Scot Douglass, professor and director of the Engineering Honors Program, dedicates his career to learning the engineering students’ stories, and helping them in their efforts to “plan it out”. He supports the students pursuing the double major, recognizing that when there is more of a risk, there must be more of an urgency and necessity for the goal. Students do not commit to such a challenge if they do not truly have the passion for both. It is this passion for the two subjects that drives the popularity of the double major. Douglass notes that these students double major in engineering and music because they have a natural talent for both. [They have] a legitimate interest in both [subjects].”

Advisers in all schools recommend that students “diversify their resume” as much as possible. Achieving the double major accomplishes this, but also allows students to pursue more than one interest. For these reasons, the double major in general is a growing concept, but the correlation between music and engineering is remarkable.

James Austin, associate dean for Undergraduate studies in the College of Music at CU-Boulder, also supports the students who come in with the goal of the double major. Austin identifies with these students, as he himself came from a strong background in both engineering and music. He and the other music professors try to encourage the pursuit of multiple studies. “The double major is becoming more popular,” Austin explains.

“[Music appeals to] the way a math brain works,” Douglass explains. Finding the patterns in algorithms and formulas in math somehow connect with finding the patterns in musical notes and scales. “[Music and math] are very complementary because they use similar parts of the brain. [I’ve found] a really nice balance between the two and can understand why a lot of other students do as well,” Bergal said.

Austin recognizes this combination as a very complementary skill balance as well. Being able to think outside the box is important for problem-solving in engineering, while the science of engineering carries over to music to allow students to analyze why they are playing particular notes and how that comes together to create harmony. “Studies in music encourage students to be creative and empathetic and the engineering courses teach students how to think critically and analytically,” Austin said.

The passion for music and engineering is common. There are 33 engineering students in the CU Marching Band this year. According to Austin, that is proportionally more than any other major. Also, Austin states that it is very common for music students to come into college with a considerable amount of science and math credits.

In the same way, it is very common for strictly engineering students to play a musical instrument. The engineering community has a very strong musical interest. Even the students not involved in the educational study of music participate in events such as the Andrews Hall Open Mic Night. Despite not pursuing a musical degree, senior mechanical engineering major Eitan Cher continues his passion as co-principal cellist in the campus orchestra, and performed at the Open Mic Night every year since attending CU. “[Music] really fits well with engineering. Music is supported in Andrews because of the common interest,” Cher said.  These musical talents are put to use in many different ways upon graduation. “[I] decided not to study music because I wanted to keep it as something I enjoy and not a job,” Cher said. Bergal’s motivations are similar to those of Cher, despite different results. “[I’m not doing it to become a professional pianist. It’s just something that I love to do and don’t want to give up," Bergal said.

There are, however, jobs in the market that combine the two skills. "[Students interested in both] can design acoustics of an auditorium or [help with] the engineering of musical instruments, while others get engineering jobs and are involved in local orchestras,” Douglass said.

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