Cymatics (from Greek: κῦμα “wave”), also known as modal phenomena, is the study of visible sound and vibration, typically on the surface of a plate, diaphragm, or membrane. Directly visualizing vibrations involves using sound to excite media often in the form of particles, pastes, and liquids.
The apparatus employed can be simple, such as a Chladni Plate or advanced such as the CymaScope, a laboratory instrument that makes visible the inherent geometries within sound and music.
The generic term for this field of science is the study of modal phenomena, retitled Cymatics by Hans Jenny, a Swiss medical doctor and a pioneer in this field. The word Cymatics derives from the Greek ‘kuma’ meaning ‘billow’ or ‘wave,’ to describe the periodic effects that sound and vibration has on matter.
The study of the patterns produced by vibrating bodies has a venerable history. One of the earliest to notice that an oscillating body displayed regular patterns was Galileo Galilei. In Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he wrote:
As I was scraping a brass plate with a sharp iron chisel in order to remove some spots from it and was running the chisel rather rapidly over it, I once or twice, during many strokes, heard the plate emit a rather strong and clear whistling sound: on looking at the plate more carefully, I noticed a long row of fine streaks parallel and equidistant from one another. Scraping with the chisel over and over again, I noticed that it was only when the plate emitted this hissing noise that any marks were left upon it; when the scraping was not accompanied by this sibilant note there was not the least trace of such marks.
On July 8, 1680, Robert Hooke was able to see the nodal patterns associated with the modes of vibration of glass plates. Hooke ran a bow along the edge of a glass plate covered with flour, and saw the nodal patterns emerge.
In 1787, Ernst Chladni repeated the work of Robert Hooke and published “Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klanges” (“Discoveries in the Theory of Sound”). In this book, Chladni describes the patterns seen by placing sand on metal plates which are made to vibrate by stroking the edge of the plate with a bow.
Cymatics was explored by Hans Jenny in his 1967 book, Kymatik (translated Cymatics). Inspired by systems theory and the work of Ernst Chladni, Jenny began an investigation of periodic phenomena but especially the visual display of sound. He used standing waves, piezoelectric amplifiers, and other methods and materials.
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