Purdue Profiles: Nicholas Giordano

September 6, 2011

Nicholas Giordano, the Hubert James Distinguished Professor of Physics and head of the physics department, became fascinated with the piano some 15 years ago when he began taking lessons and got curious about the inner workings of the instrument. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

Download image

Nicholas Giordano plays the piano -- all 19 of the pianos that fill his recreation room.

Grand, square, upright, some with felt hammers, some with leather, each one carefully collected for its place in piano history and its unique acoustic attributes.

For Giordano, the Hubert James Distinguished Professor of Physics and head of the physics department, the piano is both a musical hobby and the focus of professional study. As a researcher, he has explored the physics of why the piano sounds like a piano, using Newton's laws to calculate the motion of the individual parts and sound pressure produced.

The fruit of years of exploration was published in Giordano's book "The Physics of the Piano" (Oxford University Press) in July 2010. The book examines the science of acoustics, and also contains a history of how and why the piano came to be invented. A conversation with the author on this subject reveals his deep knowledge of the history of the instrument and its place in the world. Little wonder, then, that his house is full of pianos.

Giordano's scientific fascination with the piano emerged some 15 years ago when he began taking lessons and got curious about the inner workings of the instrument. Using his background as an experimental physicist, he applied some simple measurements to satisfy this curiosity. When Giordano's piano teacher suggested he broaden his repertoire beyond Bach, the research project blossomed. Giordano agreed to branch out, but not beyond Bach. Instead, he would play the music on an instrument of its time period, a harpsichord, and -- with the help of a master builder -- Giordano built one. He was hooked.

"I realized I really enjoyed the building process," he recalls. And he wanted to do it again, so he found and bought an early Steinway piano (1857 or so), which he restored. The reverse engineering involved in the project fascinated him, as did the way in which sound is produced.

Harpsichords, for example, are plucked string instruments and produce a uniform sound amplitude. There is no note-to-note control of the sound dynamics. Musicians wanted a more diverse sound, which led in the 18th century to the development of the first pianos, which introduced hammers and more varied sound. Pianos evolved over time to be made of different materials, grow from four octaves to more than seven, contain wire made of new materials, and so on.

"As I was restoring, I got interested in how the technology changed and problems were solved and re-solved in different ways as the instrument evolved," Giordano says.

He was intrigued, for example, by the evolution of piano wire from brass and iron mixed with elements such as carbon to modern-day steel. It was a topic he could study applying physics to examine how the material affected the vibration of the strings. His goal was to create a physical model of the piano by applying computational physics to each part of the piano. The dimensions of the soundboard, the lengths of the strings, the compression characteristics of the hammers, combined with Newton's laws to calculate the motion of each when a note is played and create a composite of the sound produced:

"The question was: Can we take all we know about the piano, the physics of the hammers, the flexibility of felt or leather hammers, the construction of the soundboard and calculate what the sound will be when it reaches your ear?"

Giordano has now moved on to other topics including computational neuroscience, with a focus on the physics, biophysics and neuroscience of how signals are generated and propagate in the brain and how the brain processes them. He nonetheless remains musically inclined.

So is another project: the restoration of the rarest of his pianos, a recent acquisition that Giordano says is perhaps the earliest piano ever made in the United States.

"I love sitting down and playing in the evening. It's relaxing. But so is working on the pianos. I could easily spend hours and hours rebuilding a single hammer." Or, perhaps, just thinking about its physics.