What is Cymatics?
Cymatics is the study of sound and vibration made visible, typically on the surface of a plate, diaphragm or membrane.
From ancient Greek: κῦμα, meaning "wave", Cymatics is a subset of modal vibrational phenomena. The study of visible sound and vibration. The term was coined by Hans Jenny (1904-1972) a physician and natural scientist. In 'Cymatics: The Study of Wave Phenomena' he concluded, "This is not an unregulated chaos; it is a dynamic but ordered pattern."
The multiple forms of universal geometry, symmetry and beauty that emerge through resonance in various mediums, allows us to ponder the nature of sound, vibration, form and many more questions.
Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) was a German musician and scientist, sometimes known as 'the father of acoustics,' almost certainly had access to Hooke's work but it is Chladni who history has chosen to acknowledge for his major study of this class of phenomena. He used a sand-strewn brass plate, excited by a violin bow; since brass is a highly resonant material he found that a large number of archetypal geometric patterns could be created, depending on where on the edge of the plate the bow was drawn. These patterns are now known as 'Chladni Figures.'
Hans Jenny studied visual sound intensively. A physician, fine artist, pianist, philosopher, historian, and empirical researcher. He is nicknamed the "father of cymatics," Between 1958 and his death in 1972, Jenny conducted a wide range of experiments documenting the effects of sound and energy on various media.
The inspiration for the exploration into cymatics is steeped in “anthroposophy,” a philosophy founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), which states that human beings can intellectually access and uncover elements of an existing spiritual plane.
Mary D. Waller became Professor of Physics at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in London. She became fascinated by Chladni's work and recreated all the forms he discovered, taking his work to a higher level.
She approached the subject of Chladni Figures with scientific rigor and her work represents a rich resource for students of this branch of acoustics, including some of the mathematical equations that describe the phenomena.
Mary Desiree Waller (1886 - 1959)
What is sound?
There is the human perception of sound, but this varies depending on the organism or devices sensitivity to a spectrum of vibration. So essentially we could say sound is a longitudinal pressure wave (waves in which the displacement of the medium is in the same direction as, or the opposite direction to, the direction of propagation of the wave), and propagates through a medium by a compression and rarefaction of molecules (molecules don’t radiate out with the wave, they stay in the average of the same position)
Typical Cymatics setup
When the vibration of a transducer (speaker) for example vibrates a circular dish of water, it is transforming into a type of transverse wave. As the surface waves on the water are moving perpendicular (right angled) to the direction of energy transfer (the propagation of the original sound wave).
As the wave radiates from the centre of the waters surface as a surface wave, it encounters a boundary. (The walls of the circular dish) the energy is then reflected back on itself. This creates nodes and antinodes (behaviour of the waves at the points of minimum and maximum vibrations, in this case, points of amplified peaks and troughs)
Nodes: Points which are stationary and with zero amplitude. At nodes, two waves travel in exactly same amplitude and out of phrase offset with each other.
Antinodes: Points at maximum amplitude. At antinodes, two waves travel in exactly same amplitude and in phrase reinforce with each other.
Nodes/antinodes of a chladni plate. The sand vibrates to the points where the plate is not vibrating. In the instance of the waters surface, these will be peaks and troughs of the waves, or points of intersection between.
So in this simple instance, there are many variables that need to be considered to understand how the wave will behave. Eg. The density, depth, viscosity of the water, shape and size of the dish. These could all add up to be the ‘variables of the medium’ that is being vibrated.
Change any of these and you change the dynamics of the medium.
If we are to hold the variables of the medium constant, and now vibrate it through a series of different frequencies, the medium will react due to its ‘resonant modes’ (a wave whose frequency matches one of the mediums natural frequencies of vibration) and create standing waves (standing wave modes arise from the combination of reflection and interference such that the reflected waves interfere constructively with the incident waves)
If we then sweep the vibration through different frequencies (amplitude becomes an important factor) the water surface will react and form geometrical symmetries at certain frequencies.
But, this is not the pattern of the frequency alone. Because if we change any one of the variables of the medium, the pattern will change.
Here below is an example of Chladni figures, and the resonant modes of a violin body, when vibrated to a range of frequencies. The violin body as the medium is held constant, and the sweeping range of frequencies (one by one, from low to high) vibrate the body. There are certain frequencies that will naturally excite it more than others, where standing waves, and thereby chladni figures arise.
So it should be seen that the pattern is not the frequency, rather the pattern is a resonant mode of the medium, being excited/resonating/ ’triggered’ by that particular sound frequency.
We are not visualising a specific sound per se, but rather finding a resonant mode of a medium that is excited by that particular sound. This creates a collaboration that would yield a unique form of those variables interacting together.
This is a shift in understanding from what is commonly miss-understood by people like John Stuart Reid. Who claim that the pattern produced is the unique pattern of that particular frequency. But the importance of the mediums resonance cannot be eliminated or understated.
We can think of this metaphorically, and understand our interconnection more clearly.
As us ourselves as mediums, particular resonant modes, constantly interacting with other frequencies. The constant movement and interaction with ourselves, within and without.
This is a basic introduction. And is just the beginning. I encourage you to please share your feedback, objections and questions!
Click here to see more 'Behind the Scenes' videos of Cymatics Photography