Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

Salzburg faculty fellow teaches students about math and Mozart

Steve Morics, a professor of mathematics and Salzburg faculty fellow, encourages students to answer mathematical questions in international and musical contexts.

When Professor Steve Morics listens to music he thinks about math, and this fall he will be teaching students to do the same as a faculty fellow at the University of Redlands international campus in Salzburg, Austria.

This is the seventh year that faculty fellows have traveled to the campus to teach a course. Two faculty members are chosen each year—one per semester. Professors must apply to teach a specific course and explain why it would be better for students to learn the material in an international environment.  

Morics, a math professor who has played the trumpet since adolescence, will be teaching Mathematics and Music, an introductory math course that will encourage students to think about math in the context of music composition.

“I’d guess most of the students I’ll be teaching have never been to a classical music show,” he says. “When I applied to teach this course, I suggested we study the pieces of music they’ll hear when they go to see an orchestra during the trip.”

But how can music be used to answer mathematical questions? Morics points to Musikalisches Würfelspiel—“musical dice game” in German—the most famous of which was composed by Mozart. Mozart’s 11 versions of 32 measures formed a party game, in which each roll of dice determined which measure to play next. For example, if the dice first came up six, the sixth version of measure one would be played, and so on. Once rolling the dice was complete, the composition would be patched together and played.

“In this way, you could advertise that people would hear a world premiere piece by Mozart that nobody, including Mozart, had ever heard before,” says Morics. “We can ask some interesting probability questions about this. Is every piece equally likely to be heard? How many parties would there have to be before an exact piece is repeated?” Morics argues the question of how to tune a piano so that it plays well in every key is also a mathematical question.

Morics has enjoyed traveling abroad with members of the University community before. In 2017, he traveled to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to perform Big Brother Hamlet with the Theatre Arts Department; he was one of three faculty members cast for the performance. Despite the performance focus of the trip, he found a way to include math by telling students about John Napier, who was born at Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle and went on to discover logarithms.

In addition to teaching students, Morics is looking forward to traveling with them throughout the region. As part of the Salzburg semester, students will spend 10 days in Italy and another 10 exploring the Balkan Peninsula. While Morics has been to Salzburg before—his college orchestra had a tour stop there—he’s eager to add more stamps to his passport.

Morics believes that international experiences are an important part of education—for both students and faculty members. “Part of traveling abroad is gaining the understanding that you’re a part of a much bigger place than a little campus in Southern California,” he says. “These trips encourage students and faculty to question what they assume as normal.”

Learn more about Morics, the Mathematics Department, and global opportunities at the University of Redlands.