What Does Music Look Like? (Part 2)

In a previous blog, in an attempt to create images of music, we discussed Supreme Court decisions, oscilloscopes, and Jerobeam Fenderson. The images were certainly entertaining, but our depiction was confined to oscilloscope green screens and the “music” creating the pictures was not always exactly musical. This time, let's try a different approach.

First, let's recap. The question at issue is how to create visual representations of music. Last time we observed how plugging various clever signals into the X and Y inputs of oscilloscopes could create pretty interesting images, images that at least far surpass the usual boring sinewave images of sound.

Interesting, but the data-carrying sounds weren't exactly musical. So, what about “real” music? What could that look like? Well, Nigel Stanford might have an answer. Consider his very hip video titled Cymatics: Science vs. Music. I know, I know, it takes immense effort click on a link, and in the back of your mind you always wonder if your address is being sent to a Russian webcam. But trust me — this is legit. Do me a personal favor and check out this video. You will not be disappointed.

Hopefully you'll agree that it provides visualizations of sound (and electricity) that are even more interesting (and artistic) than those confined to oscilloscope screens. If my physics professors had used these kinds of demonstrations to teach acoustics, I might not have used their lectures to catch up on my sleep. The video begins with an all-time favorite — Chladni patterns on a metal plate. Now, that seems easy to explain – when a plate is driven at a resonant frequency, loose material (such as sand) will accumulate in the areas of least vibration (nodes) creating cool patterns. The pattern varies with different modes. (Interestingly, for liquids, the opposite is true: the liquid moves away from the node lines.) But, as with many audio phenomena, a more complete understanding can get pretty hairy. Consider this Wikipedia page on the Vibration of Plates. I won't spoil your fun by detailing the rest of the demonstrations. I'll let you figure them out for yourself. I am not trying to be punitive. Lazy, yes. Punitive, no. Remember — learning is a life-long process.

Mr. Stanford has some other interesting videos. This one, Automatica: Robots vs. Music doesn't really apply to our discussion of sound imaging, but it's machine/music vibe is excellent. Obviously there is a considerable amount of artistic license in this video, and thus it's not really suitable as a demonstration of robotic abilities, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. I'll also link to this video, One Hundred Hunters, simply because it's cool.

So, there you go. Seeing is believing. But with a little effort, it is easy to lend images to unseeable sound. But let me explain why I think this is all a bad idea. In particular, unlike small children, I think sound should only be heard and not seen.

With all due respect to your 8K television, images are boring. I can watch a good movie a couple of times, then I am done with it. But if the movie has a good soundtrack, I can listen to that over and over. When picture and music are integrated, the picture always wins, and it quickly wears out its welcome. But divorce the same music from the picture, and it takes on a whole new life.

I think the problem is that pictures are literal; our imaginations have little to add. But music is not literal; our minds are free to endlessly invent and reinvent new interpretations. That keeps it fresh. Perhaps music's greatest asset is its invisibility.

To conclude, let's try a thought experiment: suppose we really could see sound. By some evolutionary quirk, suppose our ears are linked to our eyes, and sound pressure at the ears produces images in the eyes. Whenever you listen to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, you see the same images each time. Think about that for a minute. I can't think of anything more disappointing, or tragic.

So, what does music look like? Maybe it's better that we don't know.

supamark's picture

is how I see music, and more generally sound. I know this only works for those of us with synesthesia but it's pretty cool. Mildly surprised you didn't bring it up.

Mark Phillips,
Contributor, Soundstage! Network.

davidbe's picture

The Cymatics video in DTS:X is on the 2016 DTS Blu-Ray Demo Disc Vol.20. The sound is totally awesome and is one of my top choices in showing off my audio system.

John_Werner's picture

I was looking for a magazine about ripping good and affordable audio equipment. Do you know any? I seem to to have clicked on Psychology Today instead. Kind of reminds me of a song on an album I bought in '73 after reading a review by Joel Vance in Stereo Review...Airport by Wet Willie. You got the "right plane" baby, but the "wrong airport"