The recorded signals from the electrodes were eventually fed into an audio oscillator, with each recording representing a different frequency. By mixing the sounds generated from all of the recordings the researchers were able to create an eerie type of music – reminiscent of the sound effects used on early science fiction movies. As an added feature, the researchers report that they can cause different sounds to be generated by shining light on different parts of the mold, in effect tuning their bio-instrument to allow for the creation of different types of music.
Seen above is a green disc, wax on brass, with an early recording of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, that likely hasn’t been heard in over 125 years. Created by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in the late 19th Century and sent to the Smithsonian for archiving as they were created, the paranoid Bell failed to provide a playback mechanism for these discs, for fear that his competitors would appropriate his innovations.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories are working on recovering these early audio recordings with a system called IRENE/3D that creates 3D optical scans of the old record-like discs:
Using methods derived from our work on instrumentation for particle physics we have investigated the problem of audio reconstruction from mechanical recordings. The idea was to acquire digital maps of the surface of the media, without contact, and then apply image analysis methods to recover the audio data and reduce noise.
The nifty thing about this form of hands-off scanning is that it can accommodate many types of otherwise mechanically incompatible media, from discs made of metal or glass to wax cylinders (quick, someone set this up to scan the Lazarus bowl!!). The 18-second snippet of Hamlet audio from the green disc above (maybe the voice of Bell himself?) has been posted on YouTube, or you can download more examples from the project in WAV and MP3 format.
I’ve heard that plants attract insects and other pollinators using nectar guides (nature’s own user interface!), but I’ve never heard of this adaptation: the plants depicted above manipulate sound rather than light to attract attention, a bit of floral acoustics.
Ralph Simon at the University of Ulm in Germany and his colleagues analysed the leaf’s acoustic properties and found that its unique shape produces a strong, constant echo across a range of sound-source angles. They then trained bats to seek a feeder hidden in artificial foliage. The animals found feeders topped with the cup shape in an average of 12 seconds — around half the time it took them to locate unadorned feeders or those under other leaf shapes.
From a 1950 issue of Popular Science, an ad featuring Bell Lab’s early multi-frequency signaling keyboard for connecting long distance phone calls, in the era just before DTMF dialtones were introduced to America’s households.
From the Journal of Experimental Biology comes news that caterpillars are able to force air through their bodies to ‘whistle’ as a defense mechanism when they’re spotted by predators. These aren’t exotic bugs, either: they can be found all over the U.S., even here in Austin, Texas (guess I’d better listen carefully next time I’m in the backyard). From the Natureabstract:
When under attack, walnut sphinx caterpillars (Amorpha juglandis), whistle. An 1868 Canadian Entomologist paper, “Musical larvae,” first reported these shrieks, but their purpose wasn’t clear.
Jayne Yack at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and her team now show that the whistle, produced through openings along the body called spiracles, is a defence against predators. Simulated attacks with blunt tweezers caused the caterpillars to pull their heads back, forcing air through two of the spiracles in a succession of squeaks.
From a Language Log article on musical onomatopoeia:
Ryan Y. wrote to ask about words for “the sounds instruments make”. He points out that in English, “Drums go ‘rat-a-tat’ and ‘bang,’ bells go ‘ding dong,’ and sad trombones go ‘wah wah’”, but he notes that there are some gaps that he finds surprising:
Few instruments are as popular in the US as the guitar, but I have no idea what sound a guitar makes. There are gaps even for the standard high school band/orchestra instruments. What sound does a violin make? A flute? For that matter, what sound does an orchestra make? A rock group?
Is there a compelling explanation as to why we have words for the sounds of bells, trombones, and tubas, but not guitars? Why do we lack words for the sounds of groups of instruments? Do, say, Italians have a word for the sound a violin makes? Do the French have a word for the sound of a French Horn?
Good insight in the comments about different possible sound associations. For me, the question just makes me think of Eh Cumpari!, a novelty song that got drilled into my head by the overhead music system at the bookstore I used to work at.
Almost everyone thinks “Greensleeves” is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it’s because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century. The minor third’s emotional sway is closely related to the popular idea that, at least for Western music, songs written in a major key (like “Happy Birthday”) are generally upbeat, while those in a minor key (think of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”) tend towards the doleful.
The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn’t a facet of musical communication alone—it’s how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language.
Or to quote Nigel Tufnel: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”
Music of the Large Hadron Collider. From Discover:
Lily Asquith, a physicist searching for the Higgs boson–the elementary particle believed to give everything in the universe mass–is using more than her eyes. With artists and other physicists, she started the LHCsound project to hear subatomic particles.
I’m rarely convinced that audio visualization (what’s the better term for this field?) makes patterns in data easier to find, but it sure can sound interesting.
Converting heat energy directly into sound using tiny electrical conductors is a 100-year-old idea for an alternative to the mechanical voice coil wire + moving diaphragm design of traditional speakers, but new research recently submitted to Applied Physics Letters demonstrates a new, actually feasible approach to making these speakers-on-a-chip. Still way too quiet and underpowered for use as a loudspeaker, but might have some novel applications in the near future as research progresses.
I like the name given to the 100 year old invention, though: the thermophone.
Visions of the Amen, a voice-responsive kinetic sculpture by artist Mitchell Chan (demonstrated in this video by soprano Ashleigh Semkiw). The software is written in Processing, the hardware is controlled by the ArtBus interface being developed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kind of like a real-world oscilloscope.
Pressure Cooker was an ambitious exception among its contemporaries. In 1980, most home computer music remained limited to single-voice melodies and lacked dynamic range. Robert “Bob” Yannes, a self-described “electronic music hobbyist,” saw the sound hardware in first-generation microcomputers as “primitive” and suggested that they had been “designed by people who knew nothing about music” (Yannes 1996). In 1981, he began to design a new audio chip for MOS Technology called the SID (Sound Interface Device). In contrast to the kludgy Atari TIA, Yannes intended the SID to be as useful in professional synthesizers as it would be in microcomputers. Later that year, Commodore decided to include MOS Technology’s new SID alongside a dedicated graphics chip in its next microcomputer, the Commodore 64. Unlike the Atari architecture, in which a single piece of hardware controlled both audio and video output, the Commodore machine afforded programmers greater flexibility in their implementation of graphics and sound […]
When I saw this headline linked by Waxy I took it to be an overview of the recent (late 90’s to now) chiptune music craze, but it’s actually a nice little overview of the nearly 30 years old history of writing music on game hardware. Even includes sections on cracktros, the demoscene, and the early advent of trackers, along with some good videos of the relevant technology.
For possibly the first time in 80 years this Krazy Kat cartoon, Ratskin, has been reunited with its original soundtrack recording, discovered on a rare Vitaphone disc in Australia. Found via Cartoon Brew, who has a good writeup of the discovery.