Sound is usually considered to be a purely auditory experience; when you imagine a noise or a piece of music, you think of how your ear will process it, which in turn determines how you will hear it. However, to a tight-knit community focused on a specific branch of science, sound represents so much more than what initially meets the ear.
Jodi Meehan creating a cymatic design with a violin bow. Photo courtesy of Jodi Meehan.
Cymatics, or the study of visible sound and vibrations, presents a whole new take on the concept of sound. Instances of observation of this scientific phenomenon arise as far back as Galileo, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when a Swiss medical doctor named Hans Jenny was able to visually document his findings on the intricacies of vibrations that the largely overlooked field became more recognized.
What seems like such a rudimentary action, agitating a substance with specific sounds on a metal plate or flat surface, in fact, renders astonishing results.
Cymatic Image ©2006 Alexander Lauterwasser, from the book Water Sound Images, MACROmedia Publishing. Photo courtesy of Jeff Volk.
“Nothing vibrates uniformly. Any kind of material is going to have nodes in it, areas of lesser vibration,” says Jeff Volk, poet, publisher, film producer, and one of the world’s most dedicated cymatic enthusiasts. “So for example, you’re using a violin bow, or whatever source to create vibration, that vibration is going to travel along certain meridians within the steel plate or within the glass or anything. It doesn’t just uniformly dissipate like a pebble in a pool of water, no material is totally uniform, especially not solids. So there will be a differential in the way the sound moves there because of the resonance of the material.”
Volk, who made the 1993 documentary, Of Sound Mind and Body: Music and Vibrational Healing, has spent the last 25 years promoting cymatics through his publishing company, MACROmedia Publishing, his website, Cymaticsource.com, presentations he gives on the subject, and his poetry.
The phenomena he is referring to are the curious patterns, movements, and forms that the substance on the vibrating surface take.
“One of the many fascinating experiments that Jenny performed involved turpentine, which of course is distilled from pine sap. Using his electro-acoustic tonoscope, he projected audible frequencies into a small plate covered with turpentine, setting the liquid into a complex wave motion,” says Volk. “As the frequency, which was a simple sine wave, continued on, it generated wave trains in the turpentine creating a pattern that looked exactly like the multi-lobed figure of a pinecone.”
Photo of a tortoise shell and a cymatic image created in sand by audible frequencies ©2006 Alexander Lauterwasser, from the book, Water Sound Images, MACROmedia Publishing. Photo courtesy of Jeff Volk.
Cymatic designs, like the kind Jeff and his colleagues have found, sometimes mimic patterns found in nature. For instance, some images closely resemble the shell of a turtle, a pinecone, or the coat of a leopard.
Part of what makes this field remarkable is not only the surprising effect sound vibrations on materials have, but also the variety of people the topic resonates with. Cymatics has garnered the attention of scientists, followers of the New Age movement, and artists alike, who all seem to find the topic not only fascinating, but inspiring.
Cymatics reflects images in nature, but also to some, represents principles in nature that echo throughout one’s life once they become sensitive to them. For Volk, this means geometric physical principles as well as ideas of chaos and reintegration to achieve a more mature state. The higher the resonating frequency, the more complicated the form.
“One of the things that first strikes people and seems very obvious if you look at cymatic designs is that, you know, if you go out into the world and look at a flower or the patterns on a butterfly wing or a leaf, or even patterns in sand and nature, you’ll see the patterns that look exactly like cymatic designs,” says Jodi Meehan, a painter and another cymatic devotee. “The idea of creating structure and form out of chaos is what is really inspirational to people and inspires them to think about whether or not sound is at the basis of all form as we recognize it today.”
Once Meehan discovered Hans Jenny’s book, Cymatics, she realized this was the direction she wanted to take with her work. Years later, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, she founded The Journal of Cymatics and the online School of Cymatics. The journal highlights news in the field while the school offers online instructional videos and a community for anyone looking to learn more about making their own cymatic designs.
To John Stuart Reid, the inventor of an incredibly detailed instrument that renders cymatic images called the CymaScope, the field holds much more scientifically based territory to uncover. His website CymaScope.com highlights the burgeoning branches correlated with cymatics, including astrophysics, autism research, oceanography, and ornithology, among other disciplines.
“The CymaScope works by imprinting sonic vibrations on the surface of ultra pure water. The surface tension of water has high flexibility and fast response to imposed vibrations, even with transients as short-lived as a few milliseconds,” says Reid, who has been doing cymatic work for 17 years. “Therefore, water is able to translate many of the periodic structures in a given sound sample into physical wavelet structures on the water’s surface. Current limits to imprinting sound on water occur in the higher harmonics and are due mainly to there being insufficient energy available in this area of the audio spectrum to cause excursions of the surface tension membrane.”
John Stuart Reid working with the CymaScope. Photo courtesy of John Stuart Reid.
Reid believes the CymaScope has the same scientific potential as the microscope or telescope. Because vibration underpins all matter, the CymaScope’s application could presumably lead to an incredible amount of new discoveries.
One of the most interesting projects the CymaScope is currently being used for involves deciphering dolphin communications by visualizing how dolphins see with sound. The researchers involved have already sonically identified a series of eight objects in the animal’s language and have tried to employ these sounds to begin a dialogue with the creatures.
Reid, in collaboration with other scientists, also recently created a set of images for the Smithsonian’s “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” exhibition. In this project, he essentially created images of star sounds that were derived from high-energy collisions between atomic particles.
As sound constantly oscillates around us, vibrating air molecules and solid objects in the form of typing at a keyboard, the soft blow of the fan, or the clacking of shoes on the pavement, the humming undertone shapes our world in a way that might not initially meet the eye.
“Cymatics is an enormously exciting new field of science. In the future it will enable humanity to understand far more about our world and universe than we ever could with our ears alone, or with conventional instrumentation,” says Reid. “The CymaScope, and the science of cymatics provides an important new aspect of future scientific research and a hugely exciting journey of cymatic exploration lies before us with creating benefits for our children and our children’s children.”