Tuned to perfection

by John Lee Dudley ’95

Jay Iqbal

Seeing a student smile brightly as he talks about his research project is a wonderful sight.

Jahangir "Jay" Iqbal '15 is excited about math. You can tell by the way he talks about it. He speaks quickly and confidently and with a broad, bright smile on his face. This rising junior from Sterling has progressed quickly through his mathematics courses at Hampden-Sydney, thanks to his advanced placement classes in high school and his aptitude for the subject.

He recently completed an independent study with Dr. Marcus Pendergrass that has its roots in a class Iqbal had with Pendergrass more than two years ago. In the first semester of his freshman year, Jay's calculus class with Dr. Pendergrass used Fourier analysis. "That was amazing," says Jay. "One of my favorite classes in high school was calculus. I've always enjoyed math. I didn't plan on majoring in it, but once I came to college that changed. It's my favorite academic subject. I don't know if I would become a mathematician-I don't really want to-but I do enjoy the subject of math."

In Dr. Pendergrass' class, Jay and his classmates used Fourier analysis to analyze one note from an instrument, determine the rest of the notes from that one note, and create a mathematical representation of the instrument.

"Then we looked at composing music with these instruments, using recursion and mathematical algorithms. It was awesome because at the end of the semester we used our algorithms, the code we had written, and just a few numbers as parameters to create a composition. The computer composed music itself and it was different every time. That was amazing. I loved that class."

Based on Jay's classroom performance, Dr. Pendergrass encouraged him to conduct a summer research project: a mathematical analysis of the work of Olivier Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer inspired by the natural world.

"Messiaen was a unique composer," saysDr. Pendergrass, who is a jazz musician and researches mathematical music theory. "He used a unique musical vocabulary and, as an amateur ornithologist, he used birds as an inspiration for much of his work. Many of his pieces were based explicitly on birdsongs, including Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic birds), that we analyzed. He transcribed birdsongs, notated them musically, and worked it out on piano. Messiaen considered them true-to-life, that he was making a direct transcription of the birdsongs."

Jay and his professor had access to the original birdsong recordings that Messiaen transcribed, so they could make a mathematical comparison between what Messiaen heard and his transcription for piano.

"We set out to find a mathematical measurement of how well Messiaen's music correlates to actual birdsongs," says Jay. They used Fourier analysis on both the actual birdsongs and Messiaen's music.

"When I saw our results, I was a little discouraged because the correlation was not as high as I had expected. However, Dr. David Salvage [assistant professor of fine arts] came to my presentation and said the correlation was very high. He reminded me that a piano is not a bird and to achieve that much correlation between those two different things is pretty amazing."

Jay and Dr. Pendergrass had more questions they wanted to answer, so Dr. Pendergrass created an independent study program for Jay during the academic year. Jay wrote a computer algorithm to conduct a more comprehensive comparison of Messiaen's music with more birdsongs.

"Jay is very curious and very self-motivated," says Pendergrass. "His background in mathematics helped him quickly absorb some of the mathematical theory, but where he really took off was with the computer analysis."

Dr. Pendergrass says it is not unusual for Hampden-Sydney students to conduct a research project during the summer between their freshman and sophomore years. In fact, he would like to see many more young students doing so. "This way, when these students are rising juniors and seniors, they can go to a larger institution during the summer to do larger-scale research with a group."

Jay had considered going to Virginia Tech but he was drawn to Hampden-Sydney's small classes, all-male atmosphere, and rural setting. Hampden-Sydney was completely irresistible, though, when Jay was offered a generous scholarship that made it more affordable than the large state university.

His first two years at Hampden-Sydney have been as good as he expected. "All of the professors are very approachable and I've made great friends in college. As a student, there is a lot of attention given to you."

He also appreciates the well-rounded education, particularly the rhetoric program. "It's good habit to go over the process of planning and writing. It's kind of like exercising. If you get in shape once, it is easier to stay in shape. Hampden-Sydney gets you in shape really well as a writer."

Dr. Pendergrass, for one, is happy that Jay chose Hampden-Sydney over the large state university. "Hampden-Sydney offers students the chance to do research with faculty who are experts in an area. You won't see undergraduate students at large universities working alongside their professors."

Jay does not limit his time to working on math. He also has many jobs on campus, working in the library, the computing center, and the fitness center. He also studies Chinese and will study abroad as a Gillman Scholar next year at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University near Shanghai.

The smile on Jay's face is a sign that he and Hampden-Sydney are a perfect match.