Physics of the Banjo poster

Physics of the Banjo with Dr. Joe Dickey

Live stream on the Sound Studies website:

The American five-string banjo is unique among musical instruments in that many significant parameters that affect tone are easily adjusted. This is probably why so many banjo players fiddle with their banjo! The instrument is a combination of canonical vibrating systems (strings, and a circular membrane) and therefore more amenable to analysis and modeling than most other musical instruments (e.g., the violin). And yet, study of this quintessential part of American culture has been largely neglected. This talk should not only help fill this void but should also illustrate the procedure, utility and shortcomings of mathematical modeling. There will be only one equation, the wave equation. There will be illustrations of the dynamics and interaction of solutions to this equation in the strings and membrane. The banjo is also unique among musical instruments in that many of the parameters that affect tone are easily adjusted. The effects of a few of these parameters (head tension, bridge mass and where the string is plucked) on tone (brightness, decay and loudness) are calculated and generally corroborate the commonly held views in the banjo community.

Dr. Joe Dickey received a BS degree in physics from Drexel University in 1963, and a PhD in physics from The Catholic University of America in 1976. He worked in the Navy laboratory system from 1958 until 1996 and at Johns Hopkins University from 1996 until 2009. Most of this work was in structural dynamics and acoustic scattering. Dr. Dickey is a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, member of Sigma Xi, and was a Congressional Science Fellow in 1983 – 84. He has published about 80 peer reviewed papers, several book chapters, and about 40 other publications. He was a visiting professor at the Catholic University of America and the United States Naval Academy. 

Dr. Dickey is also an accomplished banjo player. He performed for almost 20 years with Crabgrass, an Annapolis-based bluegrass group, and is currently a member of old-timey group Shenandoah Run. He is also a woodturner and keeper of an American Chestnut restoration orchard.

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Jan 28 2021


7:00 pm - 8:00 pm

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