How Sound Wave Art Has Evolved Over Time
While Soundwave Art ™ which was founded in 2012, may be a relatively young company, the idea of creating art from sound wave patterns definitely isn’t a new one. In fact, sound wave art dates back hundreds of years when a German musician studied the impact of sound waves on his environment. As various musicians, medical doctors and other researchers continued this study over the years, sound wave art increasingly became an object of interest. Today, the methods that we use to create sound wave art may be a little different, but one thing has stayed true: the end results are always intriguing and entirely unique.
The Pioneers of Sound Wave Art
Like virtually any form of art, sound wave art didn’t come about overnight. In fact, people have been fascinated by the effects that sound waves have on different media since the 1780s. The idea that what we hear and what we see can actually overlap and that sound waves have the ability to transport at least a small amount of mass was a revolutionary one.
While the purpose of early experiments was to determine how sound waves interact with and affect the world around them, it wasn’t long before people realized that the patterns that emerged from various experiments weren’t just interesting, they possessed an organic kind of beauty that mirrored the world around them, which eventually made sound wave art popular.
Ernst Chladni: The Father of Acoustics
Our earliest known pioneer of sound wave art was an 18th-century German musician and physicist named Ernst Chladni. In Chladni’s day, acoustics was a relatively underexplored scientific field; the vibrations of string and wind instruments were studied, but that was the extent of it. Chladni built on this early research and developed a technique that would allow him to actually see the effects that vibrations had on mechanical surfaces.
To do this, Chladni invented a technique to study the motions of vibrating plates. He would start by lightly sprinkling some fine sand on a thin metal plate. Then, he’d run a violin bow down the edge of the plate, creating vibrations that produced characteristic patterns. The patterns, he realized, weren’t random; they were precise, they were repeatable and they were different depending on the frequencies of the sound waves that the bow produced. The sand would move away from the parts of the plate that were vibrating the most, and the higher the frequency was, the more elaborate the resulting sound wave art would be.
In time, Chladni produced a formula that would predict that pattern that would be produced on vibrating circular plates. The plates would come to be dubbed “Chladni’s Plates,” and they provided a tangible way to see the physical effects of vibrations in unique sound wave art patterns.
Chladni’s research caught the attention of the scientific community, thanks to his numerous popular public demonstrations. Since the technology for virtual imaging programs was still a few hundred years away, Chladni’s method for creating sound wave art was more than a fun parlor trick; it had some useful applications. Violin makers, for example, would use Chladni’s patterns as they shaped the front and back plates of the violin’s resonance box. Similar to how Chladni would conduct his experiments, the violin makers would sprinkle fine metal filings on to the wooden plates, which would then be vibrated at several different frequencies to produce a series of patterns. The final shaping of the plates was focused on ensuring that the patterns produced by the front and back plates matched and were symmetrical. This produced a rich acoustic sound that is associated with a finely made violin.
Thanks to Chladni’s research, the 18th-century understanding of acoustics significantly improved. Later on, his research on different kinds of vibrations laid the groundwork for the scientific understanding of sound that emerged a century later. For his contribution to the world of sound wave art and music, Chladni is sometimes called the “father of acoustics.”
How the Study of Cymatics Shaped Art
About 200 years after Chladni’s Plates rocked the scientific world’s understanding of sound vibrations and created the most primitive form of sound wave art, a Swiss medical doctor named Hans Jenny expanded on Chladni’s research and developed cymatics, or the study of vibrational phenomena.
Hans Jenny was born in Switzerland in 1904. Although he was a gifted musician and a career in that field would have seemed to be his natural course, he chose instead to become a medical doctor. He taught science classes for a few years at the Rudolph Steiner school in Zurich before setting up his own medical practice in the Swiss village of Dornach, about 10 miles south of where he was born.
Jenny brought a naturalistic approach to his study of cymatics and believed that sound waves had a large role in the shaping of the universe. He saw the effects of sound waves everywhere and believed that sound was the driving force behind all of nature, from the wave-like shapes of mountain ranges to the intricate patterns on flower petals. He spent a lot of his spare time observing the effect of sound upon matter, even to the point of actually shaping a substance. He noted that the images produced by sound are not “unregulated chaos” but are instead dynamic and carefully ordered sound wave art patterns.
He took Chladni’s research a few steps further to investigate not only the effect of sound waves on metal plates but also on other types of material, including water, liquids, pastes, powders and plastics. He would place these materials on a steel plate, use a crystal oscillator to cause the plate to vibrate and produce an exact frequency, and then he’d photograph the results.
Over a 14-year period, Jenny recorded and eventually published his research in a work entitled Cymatics, complete with hundreds of pictures of the sound wave art that formed when different media were acted upon by sound and vibration. Some of the sound wave art looks like human cells, organs, aquatic creatures and microscopic life, demonstrating the amazing power of sound to create form.
Acoustic Measurements in the Electrical Era
The early-1900s ushered in the electrical era in acoustics and profound changes to sound wave art when four unique inventions were combined to measure sound waves in a new way. These inventions included Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval’s galvanometer, Edward C. Wente’s electrostatic microphone and thermophone, and Lee de Forest’s audion, all of which were created within just a few years of each other.
Together, these inventions paved the way for how acoustics would be measured from then on. Instead of simply seeing how sound waves affected different materials on metal plates, researchers and scientists actually had a way to record different frequencies on a graph. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t too long before people realized that this created a whole new type of sound wave art that was just as unique and intricate as its predecessor.
The way the graph works is fairly simple. There’s a horizontal line, or an X-axis, that represents time, and a vertical line, the Y-axis, that measures how much air is displaced. On the graph, sound is represented as a waveform; the louder a sound is, the more air molecules that are displaced and the bigger the waveform.
This can be illustrated by a guitar string. When the string is plucked, it bounces back and forth. If you could observe this up close and in slow motion, you’d see that the string moves from side to side, kind of like the pendulum of a clock. If you had a tiny ruler, you’d be able to measure the distance that the string moves from above and below its resting position. This vibration of the guitar string causes the air molecules around the string to vibrate as well. The movement of these air molecules is what is shown on a graph. The graph shows how loud or quiet a sound is by showing how much air is displaced. The louder a sound is, the more vibration there is and the more air molecules are displaced, and the bigger the waveform is.
This is why each person’s sound wave art is unique. Even if two people are recording the exact same message, each person’s speech patterns are unique to them and therefore produce a unique wave pattern. For people who enjoy personalized, custom-made art, this uniqueness is one of the primary features that make sound wave art so appealing.
Sound Wave Art Today
While the idea of sound wave art is an old one, the way that it’s created and enjoyed today would have been completely unforeseen by its earliest pioneers. Technology has continued to be a shaping force, providing us with new ways to create and enjoy custom pieces.
Jeff Louviere and Vanessa Brown’s Contributions to Sound Wave Art
In recent years, partners Vanessa Brown, a photographer, and Jeff Louviere, a visual artist, came across Chladni and Jenny’s research. Inspired by their early images of sound wave art, Brown and Louviere decided to conduct their own experiments to see what sound images can be created from modern instruments. The resulting work was a sound wave art project called Resonantia, which featured 12 images, based on the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, produced solely by vibrations.
To create their images, Louviere and Brown adapted Chladni’s and Jenny’s methods to the 21st century. Louviere took one of his guitar amps apart and took the speaker out and laid it face-up, creating a table of sorts. On top of the speaker, he placed a container filled with water and food coloring. Then, he hooked the speaker up to an amp that was plugged into a computer program with an oscillator, which allowed him to play musical notes at different frequencies. To make sure they could see the resulting sound wave art easily, they placed a light beneath the container.
As Louviere cycled through different notes and frequencies, interesting patterns and images emerged. As was the case in earlier experiments, the sound wave art that emerged as different frequencies were played were clearly not random but instead were actual physical patterns, and much of the resulting sound wave art mirrored things we see in nature, including animals and even weather events.
Waveform Images and Technology
While these types of sound wave art have remained popular, other types of sound wave art have also garnered attention. Thanks to the inventions of the electric age, sound wave images on a graph have provided a new way to observe sound and create new pieces of art.
However, even that type of sound wave art has gotten a facelift in recent years. Sound wave art can now be created on a computer for greater precision than ever before and then transferred to canvas, metal and even wood. The size is scalable and can fill a large canvas or a wedding ring. Even the colors used are customizable, so art enthusiasts can easily create a one-of-a-kind work of art to gift or enjoy. Technology has also made this type of artwork available to virtually anyone, which has resulted in it becoming popular for a wide array of occasions or settings. Today, you’re as likely to find a piece of sound wave art in a baby’s nursery as you are a formal living room.
Sound Wave Art and Augmented Reality
Technology has taken the way we enjoy sound wave art even further by allowing us to pair the images we see with audio or video clips using augmented reality. In the case of the Soundwave Art app, the app is installed on a mobile device. To use the augmented reality feature, the viewer uses their phone to scan the sound wave art. The app accesses a database, matches the sound wave art up with the digital copy and then plays the audio or video clip that is linked to it. If the linked file is a video clip, the video plays on the phone screen over the sound wave art; if it’s an audio clip, it simply plays. The end result is an interactive piece of sound wave art that can be enjoyed with or without the help of the app.
Sound wave art has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, and its popularity has only grown over time. As technology and style preferences continue to evolve, it’s exciting to consider how sound wave art will continue to evolve alongside them.