Good Vibrations

Spring 2024

Howard Katz seated in a blue chair playing the cello.
“There are many connections between musical instruments and materials science.”-Howard Katz

A pioneer in the field of organic electronics and photonics, Howard Katz occasionally turns to his trusty cello to provide his engineering students with an object lesson in wave vibration.

“There are many connections between musical instruments and materials science,” says Katz, a materials science and engineering professor, who most recently performed Robert Schumann’s cello concerto for students in his Electronic, Optical, and Magnetic Properties of Materials class.

“Many instruments incorporate carefully designed materials to generate the sound and amplify it,” he explains. “For example, the bow hair has a very complicated structure of tiny fibers that grab the strings and cause them to vibrate.”

Katz’s perfect pitch—the ability to recognize and imitate exact musical notes—sparked an initial interest in the piano.

“I cannot remember a time that I could not play the piano by ear…. Around age 8, I began taking piano lessons,” he recalls.

“The school I attended in West Orange, New Jersey, had one piano, and many students wanted to be piano players in the orchestra. I decided to pick an orchestra instrument so I could always be in the orchestra.”

He soon began studying the cello, igniting a passion for performance that continued into adulthood. While earning degrees in chemistry and music theory from MIT, Katz was the lead cellist for the MIT Symphony Orchestra, playing in trios and quartets throughout college. He still finds opportunities to play, both inside and outside the classroom.

In June, Katz often joins the Baltimore Symphony Academy, a weeklong program that brings amateur artists together with professional musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for side-by-side rehearsals and performances.

To Katz, participation in the academy is equivalent to playing in the Major League. “For some people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime dream to do this, to say that they had a Major League Baseball experience,” he says. “I’m very lucky, being in Baltimore. I get to do it every year.”