November 2021 Newsletter: Compos(t)ing Music

Music is remarkable in the emotional and sometimes personal responses it elicits, especially if one considers its simple foundations: manipulations of tone, pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. While we typically equate music with human compositions made with traditional instruments, music can also be created by other means, including natural processes that appear to be audibly stagnant. Read on to learn more about Biomusic and how it’s composed.

Biomusic can be divided into two basic categories: music that is based on animal or plant noises that are arranged by a human composer, and music that is created solely by animals or plants.  

Markus Buehler, Ph.D. is a material scientist and engineer at MIT, and is also a prolific composer and sonifier of natural objects. One composition he has created extracted rhythms and melodies from spiders’ webs and their vibrations. His team scanned spider webs with a laser and assigned different frequencies of sound to different strands in the structure; Buehler and his team were then able to generate melodies from patterns observed in the 3D structure of the web.Dr. Buehler has also composed pieces realizing a materialization of sonic information in biomaterials protein design, including one piece based on the pathogen of COVID-19. Check out his SoundCloud page for some conversation-provoking dinner party music.

Spider webs and viruses aren’t the only natural occurrences that can be sonified. Bartholomaus Traubeck, a sound artist, uses a crosscut of a tree trunk as a substitute for a vinyl record; instead of a cartridge, his turnable uses a camera and a microprocessor. Traubeck delegates sounds to color and texture variations of the growth rings in the crosscut as it spins, creating melodies that align with the pattern. Since all trees’ growth rings are unique, every tree creates its own song. Listen to one of his creations here.

The examples above fall into the first category of Biomusic, where sounds are interpreted and arranged by humans. An example of the second form of Biomusic is the sonification of electric currents in plants and fungi. Bioelectric potentials are the means by which the cells of living beings communicate; for example, the sounds you hear as you listen to the tracks included in this newsletter are interpretations made by your brain of bioelectric impulses sent from your cochlea along your auditory nerve. Small electrodes, commonly used in medical fields, can be used to relay the bioelectric changes in a plant. Mileece, a multi-disciplinary artist, aims to facilitate connections between people and plants through sound. She connects small electrodes to leafy plants that conduct the bioelectric emissions they generate. This data is processed through software that translates the data into musical soundscapes. Listen to what a plant sounds like here. If that inspires you to listen to your own plants at home, check out PlantWave.

Music is a universal language. If you listen closely, you might hear more than just the birds singing!



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