What is so enigmatic about sounds that provoke emotions in us? Is it just a physical phenomenon of vibrations or something more dynamic? In this article, I will explore the sound theories throughout time, mathematical logics behind their occurrence and the scope of realization for designers and architects in translating sound to a visual context.

Power of Sound

Audio Generated Objects using Processing, a visual programming language /   Creator: Diana Lange / Source: Flickr

Audio Generated Objects using Processing, a visual programming language / Creator: Diana Lange / Source: Flickr

I’m sure everyone at some point has had some effectual association with particular music, which provoked an emotion in them, reminded them of a faded memory or simply uplifted their mood. For that matter, it is not hard to believe that sound has the potential to compel our minds to the extent of any visual object and at times even more influentially. Not every sound compels us equally, though. What is about the sound that differentiates in terms of its diverse psychological domination? Can sound theories navigate the designers in creating visual contexts which amplify the emotional and psychological impacts through it?

‘In Silence’ at the ‘State of Being’ show at the Biel Bienne, Switzerland, 2009 / Artist: Chiharu Shiota

‘In Silence’ at the ‘State of Being’ show at the Biel Bienne, Switzerland, 2009 / Artist: Chiharu Shiota

In order to understand this phenomenon, we must understand the structure of the sound relating to its nature. In general, vibrations in the sound relying on harmonics as a fundamental note extricate it from unpleasant noises. Harmony composed of variations in pitch and chords constructs the rhythmic progression which extricate the mind of the listener. In jazz, for instance, the fundamentals to produce harmony rely on Tension and Release, Balance, and Superimposition of sounds produced by various instruments. To diversify the experience in a piece of music, harmonies are momentarily broken by the sound of a singular instrument, where the musician plays variations in solo, before recurrently joined by other musicians to superimpose a unified harmony. In Arnold Whittall’s words, “While the entire history of music theory appears to depend on just such a distinction between harmony and counterpoint, it is no less evident that developments in the nature of musical composition down the centuries have presumed the interdependence—at times amounting to integration, at other times a source of sustained tension—between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of musical space”. Dave Liebman describes the approach of learning music by balancing “mind-body-soul”. This could pragmatically correlate to an underlying objective of a piece of art or architecture, producing the equilibrium between knowledge, techniques, and expressions.

Composition of Harmonic Curves

Composition of Harmonic Curves

Since the ancient times, sounds have been believed to be something more than mere pleasure of the ear. “It was like an algebra of metaphysical abstractions, knowledge of which was given only to initiates, but by whose principles the masses were instinctively and unconsciously influenced. This is what made music one of the most powerful instruments of moral education, as Confucious had said before Plato.” To create an equilibrium in the world, its elements must be harmonized and to achieve this we must go further into the underlying structure of the sound.

Harmony of the world, 1806

Harmony of the world, 1806

Mathematics of Sound

The universe is called Jagat in Sanskrit which means something that moves. There is possibly nothing which exists in this world without the combination of forces and movements. But every movement generates a vibration and, therefore, an associative distinct sound. Such a sound, may not be audible to our rudimentary ears, but it does exist as pure sound. Implying this notion, each element of matter produces a sound and the relation of elements can be expressed by a relation of sounds. This justifies why astrology, alchemy, geometry, and so forth express themselves in terms of harmonic relations.

Left: The mundane monochord with its proportions and Intervals. Center: The interval and harmonies of the sphere. Right: The consonances of the mundane monochord.

Left: The mundane monochord with its proportions and Intervals. Center: The interval and harmonies of the sphere. Right: The consonances of the mundane monochord.

The Celestial Harp- a theory that the movement of the stars and planets was related to music.

The Celestial Harp- a theory that the movement of the stars and planets was related to music.

According to a French Poet, Charles Baudelaire, if one’s mind is gifted by some mathematical aptitude, one could observe a vast rhythmical operation of numbers behind the musical notes, retaining its voluptuous and sensual nature. So, numbers purely theoretical in nature strongly imply to physical reality creating a link between the physical and the metaphysical. The mathematical laws of music are a fraction of the whole cosmic harmony; therefore, it comes as no surprise when we realize the same characteristics in music as in the universe. For instance, Musica Universalis or the Music of the spheres, a medieval theory, refers to the relation between the motion of celestial bodies and the distinct sound produced by its motion proportionate to harmonic series.

Harmony of the Spheres

Harmony of the Spheres

Pythagoras was one of the many to intervene in this correlation between the cosmic motions and their harmonies following a numerical scheme and gave the Theory of the Harmony of Spheres. He was followed by Plato, Cicero, Dio Cassius, Aristotle to as recently as Stephen Hawkings, who illustrates the musical model of our planetary system Johannes Kepler used to derive the third law of Planetary Motion, which literally gave birth to the space age of today.

Kepler's Harmony of Spheres / Understanding the Heavens by  John-Claude Peckers

Kepler’s Harmony of Spheres / Understanding the Heavens by John-Claude Peckers

Morphology of Sound

Sounds have been a subject of fascination for centuries. We can find numerous times when sounds have been deciphered to geometrical patterns, metaphorically or literally. Harmonograph is one such device where a mechanical apparatus employs pendulums to create a geometric image which follows a mathematical parametric equation of harmony.

Harmonograph Mechanical Apparatus / Source: sciencemuseum.org.uk/

Harmonograph Mechanical Apparatus / Source: sciencemuseum.org.uk

Graphics produced by Harmonograph / Source: Harmonograph by Anthony Ashton

Graphics produced by Harmonograph / Source: Harmonograph by Anthony Ashton

Robert Howsare, an American artist, recently devised a nontraditional printmaking instrument using two gramophones. Though the setup was simple it produced quite powerful visuals, similar to those by Harmonograph.

Non Traditional Drawing Appartus by Robert Howsare / Source: roberthowsare.com

Non-Traditional Drawing Apparatus by Robert Howsare / Source: roberthowsare.com

Cymatics is another analog device of morphing sound vibrations more directly, where the liquid or semi-liquid medium is exposed to vibrations creating maximum and minimum displacement in accordance to the sound vibrations. According to Hans Jenny, a physician and natural scientist, these structures, reminiscent of the mandala and other forms are recurring in nature and would be a manifestation of an invisible force field of the vibrational energy that generates it.

Cymatics morphed by the paino notes 1st octave  / Source: cymascope.com

Cymatics morphed by the piano notes of 1st octave / Source: cymascope.com

Cymatics by Hans Jenny / Source: dataisnature.com

Cymatics by Hans Jenny / Source: dataisnature.com

Robert Hodgin replicating cymatic phenomena using cinder for C++ language / Source: roberthodgin.com

Robert Hodgin replicating cymatic phenomena using cinder for C++ language / Source: roberthodgin.com

In the modern era of digitalization, computers have expanded the horizons of morphing geometries. Any geometry produced by an analog device can be replicated digitally by defining it in a Visual Programming Language. It comes as a pleasant surprise that I, myself, created some abstract geometries based upon parametric curves mutating through its control points, which are significantly similar to those by Harmonograph, long before I knew harmonographs even exist.

Audio and beat reaction No. 2 using Processing, a visual programming language /   Creator: Diana Lange / Source: Flickr

Audio and beat reaction No. 2 using Processing, a visual programming language / Creator: Diana Lange / Source: Flickr

Today, even when equipped with digital tools, we are largely overlooking the esoteric characteristics of sound. The acoustics are mere metaphorically or technically induced in an architectural space. With the immense scope of digital tools, the ways sound and spaces can merge are limitless. Can this fusion blur the boundaries of physical and metaphysical in an architectural environment by synchronizing it with the eternal force field of energies enveloping the extents of space. Could this fusion enhance the experience, simultaneously exposing the vast mystical essence of sound?

Written By: Dhruv Kohli

References:

Ashton, Anthony. Harmonograph: A Visual Guide to the Mathematics of Music. Walker, 2003.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Playground of the Seraphim: The Poem of Hashish in Colesanti. Newton Compton Editori, 2011.
Daniélou, Alain. Music and the Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness. Inner Traditions, 1995.
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Harmony of the Spheres: A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music. Inner Traditions International, 1993.
Gozza, Paolo. Number to Sound: The Musical Way to the Scientific Revolution. Kluwer Academic, 2000.
Jenny, Hans. Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena and Vibration. MACROmedia, 2001.
Liebman, Dave. A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody. Advance Music, 1991.
Pecker, Jean Claude. Understanding the Heavens: Thirty Centuries of Astronomical Ideas from Ancient Thinking to Modern Cosmology. Springer, 2001.
Werner, Liss C. [En]Coding Architecture. Carnegie Mellon University, 2013.

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