Recently I stepped up to an electronic keyboard at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. On the wall in front of me were tubes of various lengths half filled with styrofoam pellets. The boss of the place, President and CEO Steve Hinkley, described what happened next.
“And then depending on what key that you hit, those pellets resonate perfectly and you can see the sound wave right in front of you,” he said. Sure enough, at different pitches, groups of beads clustered up in neat rows and danced in the standing waves.
“We love to take things in the world of sound and help people see them differently. So you’re taking an invisible sound wave and making it visible.”
It’s one of 15 stations in a new exhibit called soundBox, which opened July 1. In the planning stages for two years, it’s the most ambitious expansion Nashville’s science center has launched in a decade, Hinkley said.
At one interactive, a group of people can mix a recording by standing our crouching to affect the levels of different parts. At another, motion sensors follow your hands and you can, like a conductor, influence the tempo of a virtual Nashville Symphony. Elsewhere, screens show MRI cross sections of vocalists at work. One’s singing opera. Another is beat boxing, with all the inner workings of the tongue, throat and teeth visible.
One of the more effective displays of the psychological effect of music is an interactive that lets visitors match various soundtrack options to various video clips. A shot from a moving bicycle in a cityscape, for example, takes on remarkably different overtones depending on the music.
“It’s all about how music influences and impacts us,” Hinkley said. He described the emerging philosophy of the science center under his leadership for two years, is aiming less at driving home facts than at emotional connections that foster “creativity, curiosity, collaboration and confidence”.
“We want people to understand some of the basic properties of sound and physics. But not through sort of direct explanation. It’s more about - no pun intended - how does this resonate with you?”