Seeing the Patterns in Sound

Vocabulary:vibrations, frequencies, sound waves, cymatics, Chladni plate

NGSS: PS4.A: Wave Properties, SEP3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, SEP2: Developing and Using Models, CCC1: Patterns.


Vibrations of D. Used with permission creators: Louviere + Vanessa

In the late 18th century, German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni demonstrated how vibrations could be used to create striking imagery. By spreading fine sand across the top of a metal plate and running a violin bow alongside, Chladni showed that the sand would settle into distinct patterns, depending on the frequencies of the sound waves produced by the bow.

Centuries later, in the 1960s, a Swiss physician named Hans Jenny built on Chladni’s experiments in an effort to study vibrational phenomena — what he called “cymatics.” Visual artist Jeff Louviere happened upon the works of Jenny and Chladni while researching another project, and he and his partner, photographer Vanessa Brown, became inspired to conduct their own experiments to see what sound could look like. The resulting work became Resonantia (Latin for “echo”), a multimedia project centered around 12 images produced by vibrations.

Access the full article here.

Questions for Students

  • What creates the patterns in the water or sand on a Chladni plate?
  • How do Brown and Louviere’s experiments demonstrate that sound travels through liquid?
  • There are areas in the images that don’t show light. What do these areas tell you about the movement of sound?
  • Why do you need to use a frequency generator to produce these patterns? Why can’t you just playing a song?

Activity Suggestions

  • Create a model eardrum and illustrate sound waves using the ear buds students have on them right now.
  • Have students experiment with Chladni plates and Eidophones that they construct. Students can document the patterns produced by taking photos, and then draw conclusions about the way sound travels based on their investigation.