Audio Equation

Eau Claire math professor researches music's appeal

Ian Jacoby, photos by Drew Kaiser |

Professor Jim Walker might not be the man you think of when you think "cutting edge music dude." Walker, a math professor at UW-Eau Claire for over 20 years, is a thin, timid man who carries himself with a quiet confidence that almost belies the fact that he is answering a question that has been posed for millennia, but never answered: Why do we like music?

Walker graduated with a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Illinois-Chicago, and from there went straight to work at UWEC. "It was a hard time for math professors. I was fortunate to have a couple of different interviews," Walker told me while sitting in front of his computer (which was running about eight separate complex programs). While at UW-Eau Claire he began to specialize in the area of Fourier analysis, or simply, the study of waves and motion. Sound waves were the logical next step.

Perhaps the biggest aid to Walker's research (and one that was previously unavailable to mathematicians) was the development of sound technology. Walker says without hesitation, "Technology has been the biggest development in the past 20 years, definitely." Walker uses a number of programs that can be downloaded for free off of the internet to analyze sound waves. "It has been very useful for me to have these programs already available to me, that I don't have to seek them out."

One of Walker's first projects was to produce a visual image of music that is more accurate than simple sheet music. To do so he used a spectrogram and a computer program called Audacity to chart out captured sounds from music files. Walker used a Duke Ellington piece to show that even though the band was playing the same note, the frequency that was resonating was minutely different each time, but still followed the overall pattern of the music. Someday this data could be used not only to come up with musical charts that are more accurate than current sheet music, but to also chart music that isn't made up of a typical Western scale.

Walker is currently trying to prove a hypothesis made by a psychologist that states we like music mostly when it most closely resembles the human voice. Walker's algorithms center around the flute and cello, but he is open to any sort of music. "If anything, it has freed me up to like jazz and rock music - they're all based around the same mathematical concepts."

In the book This is Your Brain on Music, Levitan states that the music we find most pleasing is the music that we were exposed to as children. This is definitely true for Walker, who credits his old band director, Jack Lamb, with an appreciation for all types of music. It is something that Walker looks back on with fondness: "He was the reason I was exposed to all different sorts of music. He even let us play rock music, though he hated it." In the end Walker, a math professor, sees this as the reason that music is as important to keep in school budgets as math: "We still aren't sure how much that music affects the brain at those seminal ages." That may be true now, but one thing is for sure, Walker is aiming to find out.