The experience of hearing sounds and listening to music is distinct and different in kind from other types of sense experience. Our awareness of auditory phenomenon is just the compression and decompression of air waves pushing into our ear canals, but the precise quality of our experience is created by our brain. But are our ears the only way to sense sound? We can feel vibrations in the form of low rumbles, but this does not come close to fidelity of hearing. Some people have a condition called synesthesia which can cause their experience of sounds or music to be accompanied by corresponding stimulation in other sense perceptions, such as sight or smell. A certain form of synesthesia causes people to see colors when listening to music and this curious sensation has also been reported by some people after taking of hallucinogenic drugs. It is entirely possible that our interpretation of sound waves is arbitrary, and in another world we could experience sound as images, or some other type of cognitive discernment. In fact there are many ways in which we already do see sound.
The most obvious way that we can visualize sound is through our written languages. The sounds of human speech are represented by letters, words, symbols, and sentences, allowing us to see sound combinations, even when these are not spoken aloud. The ability to visualize the noises that are created by human speech has allowed us to hear the words left behind by past generations of humans. Musical notation is another way to visually represent sound. A language in its own right, musical notation gives us a precise way to transcribe the rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and dynamics of sonic compositions. The illustration of music is arranged on a staff of lines and spaces, with each line and space representing a different tone determined by the clef at the beginning of the staff. Key signature and time signature follow the clef and these communicate additional information about the musical structure. Notes, chords, and rests of various forms denote harmonic structure and timing, and appear as odd marks and slashes which give music a weird looking written form.
Modern rock band . The Used has an intense track on their self-titled début called, “A Box Full of Sharp Objects”, which refers to the visual appearance of a measure of music notation with its jagged looking strokes. The song lyrics expand on this metaphor to describe the epiphany and inspiration that come with learning how to create music through discovery of its language. Ludwig von Beethoven famously became deaf before he finished composing his Ninth Symphony, considered one of his greatest works. He was able to accomplish this because of his deep understanding of the musical language which allowed him to hear with his eyes. Not only does the visualization of sound save its verbal and musical aspects for posterity, extending its signal across space and time, it can be seen by the eye and heard only in the mind.
A method called Cymatics is another way to visualize sound. Hans Jenny pioneered the modern incarnation of this obscure field of research in the 1960s, recording a collection of images and videos illustrating the physical appearance of periodic vibrations as they moved through various medium. Vibrating mediums create sound waves and Hand Jenny was able to capture the visual geometric patterns that these vibrations look like. For example, Jenny used crystal oscillators to vibrate a brass plate with lycopodium powder on its top, and this forced the power into a symmetrical and sonorous pattern of nodal lines that surrounded pockets of exposed brass (Jenny 27). The figure corresponds to the wave form of the tone produced by the crystal oscillators and if the frequency of the vibrations is increased the powder will morph into patterns of higher complexity (Jenny 34). Jenny also experimented with a device called a tonoscope, which allows a person to speak into it and visually display the wave form onto a diaphragm that uses powder, sand, or liquid as indicators (Jenny 63-65). Cymatics is still an atypical study, but it was recently featured by Evan Grant in a TED talk in 2009. Perhaps Cymatics is destined to remain a scientific curiosity, like the Tesla Coil, but Hans Jenny makes a descent case for its value:
“In attempting to observe the phenomenon of vibration, one repeatedly feels a spontaneous urge to make the process visible and to provide ocular evidence of their nature. For it is obvious that, but virtue of the abundance, clarity, and conscious nature of the information communicated by the eye, our mode of observation must be visual. However great the power of the ear to stir the emotions, however wide-ranging the information it receives, particularly through language, the sense of hearing cannot attain that clarity of consciousness which is native to that of sight.” (Jenny 21)
Musical writing illustrates the macro components of musical structure, while Cymatics provides a method for seeing sound in its dynamic physical wave form, but there are even subtler ways to witness the effects of sound. Musical performances have visual components in the expressive behaviors exhibited by both the performers and the audience. Although not a direct perception of sound waves, watching the facial expressions and bodily movements of singers and musicians, along with a crowd that is singing along and dancing, allows for indirect optical observation of music through the synchronous behaviors it tends to produce in people. Other ways that we can see music indirectly through its effects are laser shows, and even the familiar visualization feature in Window Media Player as it maps the patterns in songs to programmed visual effects. Even the RSS logo just below my name has an icon that represents sound visually as three small expanding waves, a familiar symbol of broadcasting. Whether direct, indirect, or as just an arbitrary cognitive construct, sound and music can be perceived in several modes, many of them in ways we typically do not consider.
Jared Roy Endicott
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Jenny, Hans. Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomenon & Vibration. New Market, NH: MACROmedia Publishing, 2001. Print.