The John Backus Archive

Biography of John Backus (1911 - 1988)

John Backus was a research physicist who trained under E.O. Lawrence at the Berkeley Laboratories and was on the faculty of the University of Southern California from 1945 to 1980, where he did research on gaseous discharges in strong magnetic fields. In addition he organized elementary courses in musical acoustics, thus bringing his special interests in music into the laboratory. He was a fine musician, playing the bassoon, clarinet and other woodwinds, the piano, as well as conducting local orchestras. John received the Acoustical Society of America's Silver Medal (for musical acoustics) in 1986 "for pioneering research on the acoustics of woodwind and brass instruments and for bridging the gap between acousticians and musicians." John was an enthusiastic climber and holds the Sierra Club record for scaling 270 peaks six times. His textbook Acoustical Foundations of Music (W.W.Norton, 1969) was the first text in musical acoustics and was used widely.  John Backus died on October 28, 1988 in the UCLA Medical Center at the age of 77.

Citation to John G. Backus

...for pioneering research on the acoustics of woodwind and brass instruments, and for bridging the gap between acousticians and musicians.

On the occasion of his Silver Medal Award from the Acoustical Society of America, Anaheim, 10 December 1986

JOHN BACKUS is a modern Renaissance man.  He holds a master's degree in music as well as a Ph.D. in physics.  Prior to his so-called retirement in 1978 he taught physics at the University of Southern California for 33 years, including courses from the lower division through the graduate level.  His research has run the gamut from nuclear physics to musical acoustics.  As a musician he has appeared as a piano soloist, orchestral conductor, and for many years as first bassoonist with the El Camino College Community Orchestra.  In addition to all of this he has led climbs of all 268 mountains on the qualifying list of the Hundred Peaks Section of the Sierra Club.

His publications appear in a broad spectrum of journals, ranging from The Physical Review to The Journal of Music Theory but centering in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, to which he has contributed 12 papers plus numerous abstracts, letters, and reviews.  He is best known for his textbook, The Acoustical Foundations of Music, which has introduced thousands of students to musical acoustics.  Now in its second edition, sales have passed 50,000 copies.

He has investigated the acoustics of both reed and brass instruments.  His greatest contribution has been to provide fundamental data on the nonlinear flow control properties of woodwind reeds.  Also he greatly improved the capillary method for measuring the input impedance of air columns - a method widely exploited by many researchers.

John never shies away from controversial subjects.  He has repeatedly presented evidence that the vibration of woodwind instrument walls has no effect on tone.  In his most recent JASA paper (July 1985) he finds that resonances in the player's vocal tract have little influence on the sound generated by the instrument, in contrast to most opinion.

He has devoted much time and effort to developing synthetic reeds for woodwind instruments, and has succeeded in producing clarinet reeds of excellent quality, as judged by reed experts.  Whether he will succeed in perfecting reeds for the bassoon (his real love) remains an unanswered question.

John grew up in Portland, Oregon and graduated from Reed College in 1932.  His senior thesis was on the building of an electronic music generator, one of the first in existence.  It involved building a mechanical harmonic analyzer in the machine shop, and John has been building much of his own research equipment ever since.

After graduation, he spent 1 year as a graduate student at Purdue, until he was forced by the economic conditions of the Depression to drop out and work for 2 years for the U.S. Forest Service, designing inexpensive weather instruments.

He continued his graduate studies at the University of California in Berkeley, where he worked on nuclear physics at the Radiation Laboratory under E.O. Lawrence.  His Ph.D. thesis was on beta-ray spectra of Cu-64 at low energies.  He remained at the Radiation Laboratory during World War II to work on mass spectrometer isotope separation of U-235.

After the war, he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California.  He did research on gaseous discharges in strong magnetic fields, but meanwhile he organized an elementary course in acoustics for music students.  Among his students have been cellist Nathaniel Rosen and conductor Michael Tilsen Thomas.

He owes his musical background to his mother, who started giving him piano lessons at the age of eight.  The high point of his piano career was playing the Franck Symphonic Variations in concert with the El Camino College Community Orchestra.  He began playing timpani in a local orchestra shortly after moving to Los Angeles, but eventually discovered the bassoon, which has been his main instrument ever since.  He now plays first bassoon in both the El Camino and Pasadena Community Orchestras.

Playing in orchestras aroused his interest in conducting, so he obtained a Master of Music degree at USC with a major in orchestral conducting.

After his retirement from teaching at USC he continued his research on musical instruments.  Eventually he moved his research equipment to his house, where his work continues.  In his textbook he states that he hopes to give the bassoon an acoustical working-over if he lives long enough.  Countless admirers of John Backus hope that he will!

Thomas D. Rossing
W.M. Hartmann