The Magical & Musical Research of Hans Jenny, Creator of Cymatics

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Some months in the past I shared a video on-line of Japanese artist Kenichi Kanazawa engaged in an uncommon musical efficiency. Over the following few weeks, this brief movie clip acquired greater than 12 million impressions on Twitter (since eliminated, embedded from YouTube beneath).

The brief video is completely riveting—regardless of its stark, unadorned and under-produced high quality. It reveals Kanazawa in an empty room, spreading white sand on a metal tabletop with the usage of a sieve, in a random sample—the form of mess a baby would possibly make toppling the sugar bowl. Then he begins rubbing the sting of the tabletop with a small rubber mallet, producing a repeated excessive tone at a charge of roughly 120 beats per minute. The friction created by the mallet rubbing in opposition to the metal, causes the tabletop to vibrate, and subsequently, the sand to bop throughout the floor. Progressively the powder varieties into a fancy star-shaped sample, lovely and symmetrical—nearly as if fastidiously constructed by an artist over the course of hours. However this all occurs in only a few seconds.

Kanazawa then repeats the method with a bigger mallet, producing a decrease bell-like tone at a sooner tempo. And now the sample shifts eerily right into a round form, ornamented with ten symmetrical protruding knobs. As soon as once more, it could take a talented artisan many hours to create an exquisite sand sculpture of such complexity, however it occurs right here nearly instantaneously in response to those resonant tones.

As this video went viral on the internet, I obtained a whole lot of responses from individuals—many who thought it was a form of sorcery or magic trick. They felt instinctively that music was one thing intangible, nearly metaphysical—and easily can’t possess the ability to rearrange the bodily universe in the best way demonstrated on the movie.

There needs to be a gimmick right here, no?

However, in actual fact, the science behind this efficiency has been recognized not less than for the reason that late seventeenth century, when Robert Hooke created patterns out of flour with sounds produced by a violin bow. 100 years later, physicist and musician Ernst Chladni undertook additional experimentation on this impact—and even as we speak many name the ensuing patterns constructed from sound by his identify, Chladni figures.  

These pioneers deserve credit score. However most of our information in regards to the scientific scope and aesthetic dimensions of this outstanding course of is because of one particular person, Dr. Hans Jenny (1904-1972), a Swiss polymath who devoted a lot of his life to that magical technique of transformation by which sound not solely turns into seen, however imposes an architectonic order of magnificence and precision on the bodily universe. 

Earlier than Jenny, this was a stunt or amusing demonstration, however he thought of it a particular area of scientific inquiry, and gave it a reputation: Cymatics, from the traditional Greek chima, that means wave. And for Jenny, this scientific self-discipline might doubtlessly contain far more than simply shifting particles on a floor, however embody the complete vary of periodic techniques we see all over the place in nature, from climate patterns to the functioning of natural life. 

If we will unlock the thriller of waves and vibrations, Jenny believed, we not solely open our eyes to the sublimity of the universe, however would possibly even set off revolutions in every thing from medication to the humanities.  

Hans Jenny
Hans Jenny (shared with permission of MACROmedia Publishing)

In reality, Jenny had been educated as a medical physician, and handled sufferers at his Basel clinic—however his devotion to care additionally led him to make home calls on poor farmers, and even deal with their animals. However his abilities lined many different disciplines. He may very well be heard enjoying organ at church or improvising jazz. He taught science at a Waldorf  faculty in Zurich. He was a scholar of philosophy, and his analysis shows a marked phenomenological orientation that deserves shut consideration by itself deserves. Different pursuits, from artwork to zoology, drove Jenny on in his quest to grasp the organizing periodic ideas of each nature and society. 

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However his most dramatic analysis targeted on making sound seen to the human eye. He invented a brand new piece of scientific gear, which he referred to as a tonoscope, that allowed him to pursue these enigmatic transformations with a depth and precision no earlier scientist had dropped at the sector. Beneath his guiding hand, not solely sand and particles, however even fluids may very well be proven responding to music. In his laboratory, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony revealed its capability to reshape liquid into a fragile lace sample, worthy of an artisan’s workshop. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” demonstrated its energy to create a rare mosaic of byzantine intricacy. 

Nobody had performed this with music earlier than. It was nearly as if a complete new dimension of composition had been being revealed, actually earlier than our eyes. 

Hans Jenny's photographs capture the extraordinary impact of sound on fluids and films
Hans Jenny’s pictures seize the extraordinary impression of sound on fluids and movies (photograph share with permission of MACROmedia Publishing) 

But Jenny was merely serving to us grasp the oldest lore of creation myths—the place matter is shaped by deities and demiurges via of their world-making songs. We encounter this story all over the place on the earth—Hindu accounts telling of Shiva’s world-making drum, or Australian Aboriginal narratives describing the musical origins of the panorama (even as we speak the pathways in that area of the world are referred to as songlines), or Biblical passages proclaiming the formative Logos. Within the early days of Western philosophy, Pythagoras was recognized to select up a stone and inform his followers: “That is frozen music.” 

Jenny didn’t invent any of those perception techniques, however he gave them a scientific bearing and an empirical actuality they’d by no means possessed earlier than. It was nearly as if all of the grand claims of world-making music, present in just about each historic scriptural custom, had now been translated into the language and scientific observe of science. 

And Jenny documented his work on movie. The surviving pictures and clips are so awe-inspiring that you may nearly neglect that is laboratory analysis, and consider you could have entered the realm of summary artwork of the best purity and depth. And, in a manner, you could have. Jenny created a bridge between the 2 cultures, scientific and humanistic, or a pathway from the left mind to the best mind. Describe it nonetheless you’ll, he solid connections between worldviews that sometimes exist remoted one from the opposite. 

Hans Jenny Photograph showing the impact of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on a fluid
The impression of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on a fluid (shared with permission of MACROmedia Publishing)

The pictures are so inspiring, it could be straightforward to neglect the conceptual underpinnings of all this. However we shouldn’t. Not way back, a brand new concept of consciousness was superior by Tam Hunt and Jonathan Schooler, a speculation that envisions rhythm because the lacking hyperlink between thoughts and matter. These researchers remind us that, in a universe wherein every thing is vibrating and oscillating—each in our our bodies and the exterior atmosphere—our very sense of identification and company could also be a quasi-rhythmic, musical phenomenon. Hunt and Schooler name this their “resonance theory of consciousness.” However the constructing blocks of this worldview will be discovered, in embryonic type, in Jenny’s Cymatics

How a lot energy does sound possess? I’ll share one final story. 

A analysis staff at UCLA not too long ago introduced their success in reviving a 25-year-old man in a coma merely by the applying of pulsating ultrasound. This spectacular end result emboldened them to check out the process with extra severely stricken sufferers, they usually demonstrated additional successes with a 56-year-old man who had been minimally aware for greater than 14 months, and commenced to revive after simply two therapies, in addition to a 50-year-old girl who been in a good deeper coma for greater than two-and-a-half years following cardiac arrest. After the ultrasound therapy, she might acknowledge objects and reply to spoken instructions for the primary time in years.

Hans Jenny Photograph Showing the Impact of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony on a fluid
Impression of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony on a fluid (shared with permission of MACROmedia Publishing)

And all this was performed with a non-invasive process relying solely on sound. On this occasion, the ultrasound was created by a small machine the dimensions of a espresso cup. They don’t name it a musical instrument, however it’s onerous to grasp why not. That is the excessive tech therapeutic music of the twenty first century, and its potentialities are solely starting to be tapped. 

Hans Jenny would hardly have been surprised by these developments. To some degree he envisioned them long ago. 

It’s a tragedy that so little has been done to advance Jenny’s work in the half-century since his death. His name is still barely recognized, both in the world of science and music. Yet more than any other figure of his time, he showed how these two spheres can come together. We should enjoy his legacy. But we also need to build on it.

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The above was adapted from Ted Gioia’s foreword to the forthcoming new edition of Cymatics by Hans Jenny, which is being republished in November 2022 with a brand new translation and a number of other new commentaries.


Ted Gioia is a number one music author, and writer of 11 books together with The History of Jazz and Music: A Subversive History. This text initially appeared on his Substack column and publication The Honest Broker.



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