On building a tonoscope…

A collaboration with Anthony Rowe of squidsoup – an ideal partner for this project – squidsoup’s work being focussed as it is on exploring minimalist, interactive, virtual visual and aural environments.

What are we trying to achieve?
Ultimately the aim would be to create a beautiful and musically responsive visualisation device and/or piece of programming that could be used by both TSP and squidsoup for live gigs and/or exhibitions.

What’s entailed?
From what I’ve seen on youtube.com, analogue tonoscopes take a little time to settle down between tones as illustrated HERE (about 4:40 in). What we’d need to do to make a musically responsive tonoscope is to speed these transitions up making them almost instantaneous. The device can then create a unique pattern for each tone of a melody – however fast the notes change – although I admit there’s something aesthetically pleasing in the transitions.

There are a number of possible approaches:

  1. build a prototype analogue tonoscope, experiment with it and film the outputs – then build a virtual one that analyses frequency and amplitude (FFT analysis) to play back the appropriate output from the recordings.
  2. Anthony suggests “make a hybrid one; part real, part virtual, then use that as the basis for chopping up in realtime”.
  3. attempt to define and model the physics and build a virtual one from the outset – running this alongside an anologue version to compare and contrast effects.

Later development could include a multi-tonal version – layering different elements of a track on top of each other – bass line, lead melody, chordal progressions etc – with different colour or shaped particles to create some fantastic realtime visualisations of an entire track.

A google.com search for “tonoscope” turns up a few interesting entries (albeit most a bit too metaphysical for me):


The tonoscope was constructed to make the human voice visible without any electronic apparatus as an intermediate link. This yielded the amazing possibility of being able to see the physical image of the vowel, tone or song a human being produced directly. Not only could you hear a melody – you could see it.

The Structure and Dynamics of Waves and Vibrations by Hans Jenny

Is there a connection between sound, vibrations and physical reality? Do sound and vibrations have the potential to create?

The article references Chladni figures – discovered by the physicist Ernst Chladni, 1756-1829, who laid the foundation for acoustics, the science of sound.

What we are seeing… is primarily two things: areas that are and are not vibrating. When a flat plate of an elastic material is vibrated, the plate oscillates not only as a whole but also as parts. The boundaries between these vibrating parts, which are specific for every particular case, are called node lines and do not vibrate. The other parts are oscillating constantly. If sand is then put on this vibrating plate, the sand (black in the illustration) collects on the non-vibrating node lines. The oscillating parts or areas thus become empty. According to Jenny, the converse is true for liquids; that is to say, water lies on the vibrating parts and not on the node lines.

And Bowditch curves also known as Lissajous figures – the result of two sine curves meeting at right angles

In the closing chapter of the book Cymatics, Jenny sums up these phenomena in a three-part unity. The fundamental and generative power is in the vibration which, with its periodicity, sustains phenomena with its two poles. At one pole we have form, the figurative pattern. At the other is motion, the dynamic process.

Mirror Tonoscopes, Milton Metfessei, Harrison Musgrave
JSTOR: The American Journal of Psychology: Vol. 46, No. 3 (Jul., 1934), pp. 478-480

These and other references led me to look at resonance, standing waves, interference and bounded waves – explained more straightforwardly through this online physics tutorial.

Initial conclusions
From what I’ve uncovered so far I surmise:

  • cymatics is based on standing wave patterns created through vibration – mostly on a 2D plate but also in 3D air columns,
  • these patterns vary not only according to the frequency and amplitude of the vibration/sound source but also the physical properties – dimensions, elasticity etc. of the medium,
  • standing waves are created as part of the resonant system induced through the interference of bounded waves…

The implications of these ideas for us is that I don’t think we need to build a virtual particle system where each particle knows where it is in relation to each other – as is the case for flocking behaviours for example. All the particles need do is to be introduced randomly into the system and then find the lowest energy points i.e. the nodes – vise vie the description of Chladni figures above – to allow us to see the low or zero energy lines within the resonating system – and this, we agree, is a much easier task.

3 Responses to “On building a tonoscope…”

  1. Lewis says:

    Anthony & Lewis respond:

    A: Hans Jenny also wrote a book.

    L: I know… I have a PDF of it for download.

    A: My thoughts are:
    In order to make it interesting/rooted in reality, a real tonoscope ought to be used somewhere in the process.

    L: I concur…

    A: This could be measured using a camera/3D camera and those results used to control a virtual space, BUT camera results may not be good as the effects are subtle (especially in 3D).

    L: Agreed… but the idea of using a camera to capture (and then project) the analogue output is important – even if this data isn’t actually used to control the virtual space. Conceiving a design for a tonoscope with the camera looking down on the vibrating plate is part and parcel of it I think.

    A: Alternatively, real imagery could be superimposed on virtual visualisations to give a kind of augmented tonoscope, where real and virtual complement each other, and the virtual does stuff that the real never could.

    L: This I think is a really interesting idea… and fits well with other projects I have brewing too.

    A: But then what? I guess it could be used as the basis for a performance, where AV samples are then cut up and triggered in real time – this could get quite complex and rich if multiple samples occur simultaneously.

    L: I certainly think this is feasible… frequency and amplitude seem the most important elements of the sound source so an increasingly complex overlaying of simple tones – particularly if they match the harmonics of the plate (though I think these aren’t necessarily whole tones and may therefore sound discordant) – could build some complex and interwoven sounds and visuals…

    A: It could be an installation (though I’m not sure if it would be interactive).

    L: I do like the idea of crafting a beautiful, minimalist analogue tonoscope as an objet d’art – I imagine an under-lit sand-blasted glass or translucent perspex/plastic resonating board housed in a high-grain wooden or anodised aluminium frame with a wireless micro camera suspended above on wires and tiny bearings or some other suitable grain like material… know what I mean?

    If part of the installation were either a microphone or a simple sound generating circuit with frequency and amplitude controls – big knobs or sliders – then I do think it could be interactive… and I think people would definitely get off on it…

    A: Or a film. Quite like the idea of the film actually… or any combination of the above.

    L: I think that if we’re able to perform with it then a film is just a refined, considered outcome of using it as an instrument… and I’m all in favour of that.

    A: How to proceed. It’d be nice to meet up, but we live 100 miles apart or so (I think – where are you now? I’m here: GL54 4AW

    L: I’m in M/cr at the moment… but email exchanges like this one… and a blog… and Skype chats etc. means distance shouldn’t be a problem. I think the biggest issue is agreeing a shared vision of what we’re doing – of which this exchange is a part – then working out a plan of action, dividing tasks etc…

    A: I’m also quite busy at the moment, but that’s not the end of the world either; it would be excellent to build something together here, and the tonoscope is a good starting point.

    L: Sounds like a good idea… I have no studio/workshop facilities here…

    A: The other thing is a stylistic point. Are you planning on using it with the Sancho Plan?

    L: I would like to… but it does involve a discussion within TSP about how this project might fit into our current audiovisual landscape… a conversation we will have soon I think. Your idea of an augmented tonoscope means that a TSP version could have it own set of virtual visualisations…

    A: If you are, we ought to discuss in a bit more detail how you see triggering etc working. As you mentioned, cymatic patterns take a while to reveal themselves, and visually also the obvious kind of music to use for this is very slow moving dronescapes; do you see it connecting/being triggered by MIDI drums?

    L: I think it has to be a mono or stereo audio signal… (I don’t see any direct MIDI control – perhaps for changing/controlling the virtual visualisations… but that’s way down the line)… and for performance this would probably be the output from a synth – or a MIDIfied bass guitar or guitar controlling a soft synth. If we can speed up the transitions between different standing wave states – and the youtube link I sent last time shows that this isn’t actually that slow – then slow tempo dub (my favourite) should also work… but it’s a bit hard to say until we build it and play with it isn’t it?

    A: And finally….. have you any thoughts on how we might get any $$$ for this? Sounds like an ACE proposal to me; supported by Martyn Ware praps?

    L: I agree $$$ are absolutely required… and ACE is a good idea… though I’m probably over quota on various projects with Arts Council London – so if we could apply through Arts Council South West? I definitely think Martyn would support a proposal, Helen Sloan at SCAN too… and they may both have other sources to suggest too.

    A: Hiya – more thoughts…

    At 16:04 23/09/2007, you wrote:

    The implications of these ideas for us is that I don’t think we need to build a virtual particle system where each particle knows where it is in relation to each other – as is the case for flocking behaviours for example. All the particles need do is to be introduced randomly into the system and then find the lowest energy points i.e. the nodes – vise vie the description of Chladni figures above – to allow us to see the low or zero energy lines within the resonating system – and this is we agree a much easier task.

    you sure about this? It seems to me that it’s all pretty complex and interdependent stuff. How do we know what areas have high and low vibrations? Are there any formulae out there?

    L: Yes I’m sure… but with the caveat that despite studying maths & physics as part of my chemistry degree (years ago now) I’m no mathematician or physicist – or programmer for that matter. I really do think that what we’re dealing with here is controlling the vibrational patterns of the resonating board – the sand/particles are just a way to see it – like introducing smoke into a wind tunnel.

    A: I found this, which has a formula and looks hopeful – but the applet doesn’t work for me – does it work for you?

    L: This is exactly what I mean… and no the applet doesn’t work for me either. I’ll spend some more time looking at this and will feedback my thoughts. I’m reasonably confident we’ll be able to work out the equations to control a virtual system…

    If the vibrating plate were represented visually as a 2D grid of evenly spaced points – connected to each neighbour by invisible elastic links – and we could then get this virtual plate to vibrate according to the Chladni plate equations that could eliminate the need to introduce particles in to the system to ‘see’ the vibration.

    A: Also, related but not directly – and this is pretty wild (if it’s true):

    On Jenny (from http://www.world-mysteries.com/sci_cymatics.htm):

    In his research with the tonoscope, Jenny noticed that when the vowels of the ancient languages of Hebrew and Sanskrit were pronounced, the sand took the shape of the written symbols for these vowels, while our modern languages, on the other hand, did not generate the same result! How is this possible? Did the ancient Hebrews and Indians know this? Is there something to the concept of “sacred language,” which both of these are sometimes called? What qualities do these “sacred languages,” among which Tibetan, Egyptian and Chinese are often numbered, possess? Do they have the power to influence and transform physical reality, to create things through their inherent power, or, to take a concrete example, through the recitation or singing of sacred texts, to heal a person who has gone “out of tune”?

    L: This is what I mean by the metaphysical aspects of cymatics… and I kinda do think its true… but in the same way that Flinton Chalk (remember him from Future Of Sound?) talks about ancient burial mounds being built to resonate at certain frequencies to induce trance. I think cymatics illustrates through science an area of forgotten knowledge about fundamentals in nature that the ancients understood. I don’t see it as ‘evidence of divinity or godhead’ but I do think it illustrates that there are still some essentials about the interconnectedness of all things and the dynamic between energy and matter that despite our supposedly advanced understanding of the universe, we just don’t quite get. Of course I could be wrong…

    Lewis – research 07-10-01

    Chladni’s Law – describes modal patterns of circular plates – and I found a nice PowerPoint file going into some more detail and background…

    but I think we’re trying to understand the modal patterns of rectangular plates as described in the website you linked to with the non working applet… which led me to looking for wave equations…

    A google.com search for “wave equation in two dimensions” gives a number of links with increasingly complex mathematical explanations and proofs – which will probably be a useful resource in the future… but I can’t really get my head round at the moment…

    Wikipedia Wave Equation
    The acoustic, two dimensional wave equation
    Wave Equation–Rectangle

    but in terms of practical examples Maciej Matyka’s Computer Simulations in Physics site and his Waves – Two dimensional Wave equation solution software – seems to be well on the way to what we’re looking for (I’ve downloaded it and played with it a little)… and he talks about making the source code available…

  2. Lewis says:

    Anthony Rowe responds

    A: Wave simulation is cool – something I’ve been meaning to play with for a while – but is that the same as the Chladni thing – maybe it is, in that if you set up the system properly to create standing waves then these can be used to apply forces to a series of grains…. maybe.

    L: I suspect it is in part… but how the physics of standing waves relates to that of material properties – and whether all of this can be represented via a virtual particle system… who knows?

    A: For me it’s a very interesting project that can begin to explore some notions of virtual materials, and I’d like to connect to some form of interaction – realtime 3D interaction with fluids… using the Driftnet kit; right up my street innit!

    L: and I’d like to play with minimalist user interfaces like the monome – which seems to fit well with Paul Falstad’s Math and Physics Applets – see my latest blog entry…

    A: So, the bits and bobs we need to do are:
    – make a real tonoscope
    – build a virtual tonoscope that is based on reality but can be bent and twisted to produce unreal and beautiful visualtisations
    – work on a way to combine the two
    – turn this into exhibitable works: performance, installation, film.

    L: Agreed… that about sums it up…

    A: I happen to be seeing Helen Sloan on Wednesday actually about something else – I’ll bring it up and see what ideas she has to take this further. Maybe an ACE SW application would be best, with you and Martin and Helen supporting it perhaps. My Driftnet app was rejected but we didn’t use the leverage at our disposal very well. I can try and get that together, get Watershed and Artsway properly involved perhaps.

    L: I think support from Helen (what did she say when you met by the way/) and Martyn would be forthcoming. I think we need to maximise links and support to make it a strong proposition for ACE – judging by the general funding climate at the moment…

    A: Let me know any thoughts you have – fancy a first pass at the ACE project overview application?

    L: I’d be happy to make a first pass… leave it with me for a little while…

  3. Not Just In Processing: broadening my creative agenda | Prodical's Blog says:

    […] (MIRIAD) at Manchester Metropolitan University – developed from ideas first mooted in my ‘On building a tonoscope…’ post in September […]