A few months ago, I shared a video online of Japanese artist Kenichi Kanazawa engaged in an unusual musical performance. Over the next few weeks, this short got over 12 million impressions on Twitter (since removed, embedded from YouTube below).
The short video is absolutely captivating, despite its stark, no-frills, and underproduced quality. It shows Kanazawa in an empty room, spreading white sand over a steel table using a sieve, in a random pattern – the kind of mess a child might make by knocking over the sugar bowl. Then he begins to rub the edge of the table with a small rubber mallet, producing a repeated high-pitched sound at a rate of about 120 beats per minute. The friction created by the mallet rubbing against the steel causes the tabletop to vibrate and, subsequently, the sand to dance across the surface. Gradually the powder forms an intricate star-shaped pattern, beautiful and symmetrical, almost as if it had been carefully constructed by an artist over hours. But all this happens in seconds.
Kanazawa then repeats the process with a larger mallet, producing a lower bell sound at a faster tempo. And now the pattern eerily transforms into a circular shape, adorned with ten symmetrical protruding buttons. Again, it would take many hours for a skilled craftsman to create a beautiful sand sculpture of such intricacy, but here it happens almost instantly in response to those resonant tones.
When this video went viral on the web, I received hundreds of responses from people, many of whom thought it was some kind of witchcraft or magic trick. They instinctively felt that music was something intangible, almost metaphysical – and that it simply couldn’t possess the power to rearrange the physical universe in the way demonstrated in the film.
There must be something here, right?
But, in fact, the science behind this performance has been known at least since the late 17th century, when Robert Hooke created patterns from flour with sounds produced by a violin bow. One hundred years later, physicist and musician Ernst Chladni undertook further experiments with this effect – and even today many call the resulting patterns created from sound by name, Chladni figures.
These pioneers deserve recognition. But most of our knowledge of the scientific significance and aesthetic dimensions of this remarkable process is due to a single individual, Dr. Hans Jenny (1904-1972), a Swiss polymath who devoted much of his life to this process. magic of transformation by which the sound not only becomes visible, but imposes an architectural order of beauty and precision on the physical universe.
Before Jenny it was a fun stunt or demonstration, but he considered it a special area of scientific research and gave it a name: Cymaticsfrom ancient greek Chima, meaning vague. And for Jenny, this scientific discipline could potentially involve much more than just moving particles on a surface, but encompass the full range of periodic systems we see everywhere in nature, from weather patterns to the workings of organic life.
If we can unlock the mystery of waves and vibrations, Jenny believed, not only would we open our eyes to the sublimity of the universe, but we might even spark revolutions in everything from medicine to the arts.
In fact, Jenny was trained as a doctor and cared for patients in her clinic in Basel, but her dedication to care also led her to make house calls to poor farmers, even caring for their animals. But his skills covered many other disciplines. You could hear him playing the organ in church or improvising jazz. He taught science at a Waldorf school in Zurich. A student of philosophy, his research presents a marked phenomenological orientation that deserves special attention for its merits. Other interests, from art to zoology, propelled Jenny in her quest to understand the periodic principles of organization in nature and society.
But his most spectacular research focused on making sound visible to the human eye. He invented a new piece of scientific equipment, which he called a tonoscope, which enabled him to pursue these enigmatic transformations with a depth and precision that no previous scientist had brought to the field. Under his guiding hand, not only sand and particles, but even fluids could be shown responding to the music. In his laboratory, Mozart Jupiter Symphony revealed its ability to reshape liquid into a delicate lace, worthy of an artisan’s workshop. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” demonstrated its power to create an extraordinary mosaic of Byzantine complexity.
No one had done this with music before. It was almost as if a whole new dimension of composition literally revealed itself before our eyes.
Yet Jenny was simply helping us grasp the oldest tradition of creation myths – where matter is formed by deities and demiurges through their world-creating songs. We encounter this story all over the world – from Hindu tales of Shiva’s world-creating drum, to Australian Aboriginal tales describing the musical origins of the landscape (even today the ways in this part of the world are called songs), or biblical passages proclaiming the formative Logos. In the early days of Western philosophy, Pythagoras was known to pick up a stone and tell his followers, “It’s frozen music.”
Jenny did not invent any of these belief systems, but he gave them a scientific scope and an empirical reality that they had never possessed before. It was almost as if all the great pretensions of world musical creation, present in virtually all ancient scriptural traditions, had now been translated into the language and clinical practice of science.
And Jenny documented her work on film. The surviving images and clips are so impressive that you can almost forget they are laboratory research and believe you have entered the realm of abstract art of the highest purity and intensity. And, in a way, you have. Jenny has created a bridge between the two cultures, scientific and humanistic, or a path from the left brain to the right brain. Describe it however you like, it forged connections between worldviews that usually exist in isolation from each other.
The photos are so inspiring that it would be easy to overlook the conceptual underpinnings of it all. But we shouldn’t. Not so long ago, a new theory of consciousness was advanced by Tam Hunt and Jonathan Schooler, a hypothesis that views rhythm as the missing link between mind and matter. These researchers remind us that, in a universe where everything vibrates and oscillates, both in our body and in the external environment, our very sense of identity and agency can be a quasi-rhythmic musical phenomenon. Hunt and Schooler call this their “resonance theory of consciousness.” But the building blocks of this worldview can be found, in embryonic form, in Jenny’s Cymatics.
How loud is the sound? I will share one last story.
A UCLA research team recently announced that they were able to revive a 25-year-old man in a coma simply by applying pulsed ultrasound. This impressive result encouraged them to try the procedure with more severely affected patients, and they demonstrated further success with a 56-year-old man who had been minimally conscious for more than 14 months and began to recover after just two treatments, as well as a 50-year-old woman who was in an even deeper coma for more than two and a half years after cardiac arrest. After the ultrasound treatment, she was able to recognize objects and respond to voice commands for the first time in years.
And it was all done with a non-invasive sound-only procedure. In this case, the ultrasound was created by a small device the size of a coffee cup. They don’t call it a musical instrument, but it’s hard to see why. This is the high-tech healing music of the 21st century, and its possibilities are only beginning to be exploited.
Hans Jenny would hardly have been surprised by these developments. To some extent, he had been considering them for a long time.
It is a tragedy that so little has been done to advance Jenny’s work in the half century since her death. His name is still little recognized, both in the scientific and musical world. Yet, more than any other figure of his time, he showed how these two spheres can come together. We should take advantage of his legacy. But we also have to rely on it.
The above has been adapted from Ted Gioia’s foreword to the next new edition of Cymatics by Hans Jenny, which is reissued in November 2022 with a new translation and several new commentaries.
Ted Gioia is a leading music writer and author of eleven books, including jazz history and Music: a subversive history. This article originally appeared on his Substack column and newsletter The Honest Broker.