Cymatics

Cymatics is the study of visible sound. When sound passes through material such as water, or a flat piece of wood or metal, the material vibrates in relation to the frequency of the sound passing through it. A remarkable result is that beautiful geometric and symmetric patterns emerge.

With solid materials, you can see the shapes if you place sand on the surface of the material and then pass sound through the material using a bow or a speaker source, as in this chladni plate built by Matt Venn:

Chladni plate on top of a recycled speaker with sand arranged in a pattern on the plate's surface

Image: Chladni plate by Matt Venn (Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0)

In the case of water, the shapes are visible as rippling waves on the water’s surface. The visible pattern changes as the frequency of the sound changes, becoming ever more complex as the frequency increases. Here are some images by Evan Grant, a creative technologist who has given TED talks on cymatics and its applications:

Cymatics image by Evan Grant

Cymatics image by Evan Grant

Cymatics image by Evan Grant

Cymatics images by Evan Grant (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of cymatics. I learned of it while watching When Björk Met Attenborough, a great documentary in which the two luminaries discussed the relationship between music, technology and the natural world – a theme at the heart of Björk’s Biophilia project. (Describing Biophilia as an ‘album’ would be an understatement.)

I found the shapes and patterns utterly mesmerising, particularly watching the shapes reorganise themselves as the sound frequency changed.

As Grant says in his TED talk, cymatics is “like a looking glass into a hidden world”.