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Sound Art Shows You What Musical Notes Actually Look Like

By Jennifer Ouellette on at

Sound is something of an ephemeral phenomenon, existing in the moment that vibrations travel through the air. Those vibrations also exhibit distinct patterns, depending on frequency, which can be visualised by scattering a fine dust over a vibrating plate. This was the inspiration for Resonantia, an album whose catalogue features photographs that capture those distinctive patterns for all 12 musical notes.

Sound Art Shows You What Musical Notes Actually Look Like

The technical term is cymatics (from the Greek word for “wave”), and it’s been an active field of study—particularly in acoustics—since at least the time of Galileo. In 1680, Robert Hooke first saw these so-called “nodal patterns” when he ran a bow along glass plates to induce vibrations. But it was Ernst Chladni who perfected the technique in 1787, which is why the patterns are known as “Chladni figures.”

There’s a certain amount of pseudo-scientific nonsense associated with Chladni figures thanks to the work of Hans Jenny in the 1960s, who believed they were manifestations of an otherwise invisible “vibrational energy.” But there’s no denying the beauty of such figures, and their connection to music, makes perfect sense. Perhaps that’s why the figures have inspired quite a few artists in recent years—like Jack White, whose music video for “High Ball Stepper” features Chladni patterns created by the music:

Add Jeff Louviere and Vanessa Brown, the masterminds behind Resonantia, to that list. Struck by the fact that each note produced a distinct shape in a liquid medium, they decided to use photography as a form of sonic sculpture to capture those patterns. “We are translating a time-based medium of sound and contrasting it with the space-based form of photography,” they write on their website. “Everything you see is a sound. Everything you hear is a photography.”

Louviere used a frequency generator on his laptop, a guitar tuner, and an old amplifier, placed directly beneath a plastic plate. Then, as Heather Sparks writes at Nautilus:

Louviere vibrated the water with the amp by adjusting the generator’s frequency. As he did so, he used his tuner to seek out the frequency of each of the 12 notes—A, B, C through G, plus the five halftones. While Louviere dialed the knobs, Brown stood on a ladder above the contraption illuminating the water with a ring light, her camera in hand. When the tuner registered a note—reading 220 hertz, the frequency that produces an A, for instance—Louviere stopped adjusting. As each note’s unique vibration induced its characteristic pattern into the water, Brown captured it with her camera. The pair worked together to obtain a “portrait” of each of the 12 notes.

In each, Louviere and Brown saw a distinct image: G looks like a devil, C# is the tree in the Garden of Eden, and F is something like the underbelly of a frog. If you were to repeat this experiment, you would get the same designs.

But Louviere didn’t stop there. He also used a program called Photo Sounder to scan the 12 resulting images and turn them back into sounds. He mixed the 12 sound files back into the final “soundscape.” As for the images themselves, they make for a dazzling artistic display.

Sound Art Shows You What Musical Notes Actually Look Like
“Sights can be seen and images can be heard.” Full range of cymatic patterns created by Jeff Louviere and Vanessa Brown.

Sound Art Shows You What Musical Notes Actually Look Like
F looks like the underbelly of a frog.

[Facts So Romantic]