What music looks like: the magic of Chladni figures

A Chladni figureYou’re probably familiar with oscilloscopes, which make the wave patterns of sound and music visible. Far less well-known, however, are Chladni figures. Discovered at the beginning of the 19th century by Ernst Chladni, a German-born Hungarian physicist and musician, these patterns reflect vibrations on a flat surface like a metal plate or a drum head. Sprinkle fine grains of sand or salt on such a surface, and the grains will align into beautiful patterns that shift as the pitch changes.

Chladni was actually building on earlier experiments performed by Robert Hooke. In 1680, Hooke observed these nodal patterns in vibrating glass plates. Chladni’s technique used a bow that he drew across a metal surface sprinkled with sand. The vibrations from the bow caused the sand to move and concentrate in nodal lines where the surface was still.

Chladni figures in painting by Bethany ShorbChladni figures produce beautiful, symmetrical patterns reminiscent of tribal art. No wonder that some artists have been drawn to them. Detroit-based artist Bethany Shorb creates sound-generated paintings based on Chladni figures using industrial polymer paint and metal flake on aluminum. You can read more about her work on her website.

As utilitarian design, Chladni designs decorate myriad items from mugs to clothing.

Video Demonstrating Chladni Figures

Warning: Be sure to lower the volume before listening so the sound is not too intense.

For more about Chladni figures, check out this article on the Smithsonian website.

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