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The Marriage of Music and Nature

The Marriage of Music and Nature

Sound is a natural phenomenon, and music is this natural phenomenon harnessed and morphed by human minds and hands: an evolution of sound based on the principles of physics. Below we explore various expressions of this relationship between music/sound and the natural world.

The “Elegy for the Arctic”

In some instances, as in the following, humans use nature as inspiration for art in an attempt to honor the natural world and to inspire others to action. For example, on November 23, 2017, Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi premiered his composition “Elegy for the Arctic” floating on the Arctic Sea.

Inspired by a Greenpeace petition of 8 million people across the world demanding governments to cease oil drilling and destructive fishing, Einaudi wrote this piece and performed it floating in the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by the very icebergs that are at risk. The iceberg, a 2.6 x 10 meter, 2 ton, constructed iceberg, held Einaudi and his grand piano to perform this gorgeous piece, inspirational but haunting: his call to action in support of Arctic preservation and a chance to mourn a potential future of human error. The interaction between human music and the natural world here is figurative but very real.


Einaudi called the iceberg the “best stage in the world”

Great Stalacpipe Organ

The Great Stalacpipe Organ is an electrically actuated lithophone located in Luray Caverns, Virginia, USA. It is operated by a custom console that produces the tapping of ancient stalactites of varying sizes with solenoid-actuated rubber mallets in order to produce tones. The instrument’s name was derived from the resemblance of the selected thirty-seven naturally formed stalactites to the pipework of a traditional pipe organ along with its custom organ-style keyboard console. It was designed and implemented in 1956 over three years by Leland W. Sprinkle inside the Luray Caverns near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ appears at first to be a normal organ, but instead of using pipes, the organ is wired to soft rubber mallets poised to gently strike stalactites of varying lengths and thicknesses. When the keyboard is played, the entire subterranean landscape becomes a musical instrument. In order to achieve a precise musical scale, the chosen stalactites of the organ range over 3.5 acres, but due to the enclosed nature of the space, the full sound can be heard anywhere within the cavern. The organ was invented and built in 1954 by Leland Sprinkle, a mathematician and electronic scientist. It took him over three years to complete it.

Sprinkle created the Great Stalacpipe Organ over three years by finding and shaving appropriate stalactites to produce specific notes. He then wired a mallet for each stalactite that is activated by pressing an associated key on the instrument’s keyboard. The stalactites are distributed through approximately 3.5 acres (14,000 m2) of the caverns but can be heard anywhere within its 64-acre (260,000 m2) confines.

Amateur video with music in background excellent view of the size of the instrument


Pyrophone – fire breathing piano

Physicist and musician Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner, 1852- 1882, was the son of French composer Jean-Georges Kastner, who took his father’s fondness of music and instruments to a new level with the invention of the pyrophone in 1870. This instrument is also known as a “fire-explosion organ” which emits notes that are caused by explosions, rapid combustion and heating. In Kastner’s patent for his instrument, he explains that two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen in a glass tube, when united and combusted will create a chain of slight detonations. By using distances of thirds along the length of a glass tube from the bottom up, a number of explosions which match the vibrations needed to produce a sound in the tube will create a musical tone. By changing the height of the flame, the ratios between the explosions and the needed vibrations are disrupted and the sounds cease, allowing control of the instrument.

The Pyrophone made a splash in the last 1800s, as one Jean Henri Dunant wrote in 1875 in Popular Science about these “singing flames” produced by the pyrophone which he deemed had a strong connection to the cosmos itself, having an ethereal quality. He poetically describes the process that Kastner describes in his patent which he calls “chemical harmonica.” Dunant explains to his audience of scientists that in order for sound to become pure, as in a musical note, “the impulse .. should be exactly similar in duration and intensity” to the intonations needed to create a note on the musical scale and thus becomes no longer “dull and confused,” but “clear and brilliant.” Dunant epically describes the sound produced by the pyrophone, writing that it resembles the sound of a human voice mixed with that of an Aeolian harp, “powerful, full of taste, and brilliant; with much roundness, accuracy, and fullness; like a human and impassioned whisper, as an echo of the inward vibrations of the soul.” (Popular Science Monthly, v7, 1875). With such a ringing endorsement, clearly, the pyrophone is an instrument to hear – not to mention the greatest part of all – it makes music with FIRE:

The Waterphone

Richard Waters was an American artist and inventor and sonic experimentalist who gained artistic traction from the 1960’s onward and is best know as the creator of The Waterphone. As opposed to the fire of the Pyrophone, The Waterphone uses water to warp and modify sound housed inside its resonators. The instrument is handmade of stainless steel and bronze and are known as “acoustic synthesizers. According to the Waterphone website, it is somewhere between the Tibetan Water Drum, the African Kalimba, and something called a Nail Violin. Waters crafted and honed his creative process for 40 years, using hot metal to create tonal rods tuned diatonically in “micro-tones.

The Waterphone is either suspended by a cord or held by its neck and can be played as a stringed or percussion instrument with hands and fingers, mallets, or bows. It not only uses a natural element as part of its construction (water), but has been proven to interact with nature by successfully calling whales. The instrument has made a splash, so to speak, in cinema being included on film and TV soundtracks such as “Star Trek” the movie, “Poltergeist,” “Bugsy,” “Young Guns,” and more. In addition, it has been exhibited in galleries and museums such as the Smithsonian in DC, the Oakland Museum, the San Francisco Folk Art Museum to name a few. Documentaries have covered the instrument such as “Art Notes” (San Francisco’s public television, and the film short “Celestial Wave.” While Waters passed in 2013, his instruments continue. To be handcrafted and sold at the

The Rijke Tube

This ultra-simple instrument creates one standing wave and therefore may qualify as more of a laboratory experience than rather than a playable performance tool. However, it falls in line with the other instruments in this post in that it directly harnesses and puts emphasis on natural elements at its core. Simply put, the Rijke tube turns heat into sound and creates a self-amplifying standing wave, an example of resonance.

It seems that inventors, scientists and musicians in the 19th century were intent on creating
sound with heat and fire, as physics professor P.L. Rijke of the Netherlands discovered the means to sustain sound with heat via an open ended tube in the same decade that Kessler patented his Pyrophone. Rijke used a glass tube 3.5 cm in diameter and 0.8 m in length that housed a disc made of wire gauze. The disc was held through friction and heated until it glowed red. When the flame was removed, the tube emitted sound that diminished as the disc cooled and eventually died out.

Rijke moved on to use electrical heating which produced continuous heat and therefore continuous sound. further experiments at the time report that the sound from the Rijke tube was substantial, enough to shake the room and heard throughout the department. (John Wm. Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) (1879) “Acoustical observations,” Philosophical Magazine, 5th series, vol. 7, pages 149-162.)

The sound coming from the Rijke tube is created due to physics. It makes a “standing wave” that has a wavelength twice the length of the tube which creates a fundamental frequency. The standing wave is a wave caused by two wave motions occurring simultaneously, in this case the heat causing air movement due to convection is combined with the motion of the sound waves. The reason that the Rijke tube creates such loud sound is because the “pressure maximum” is constantly reinforced with the continual introduction of small bits of cool air during the process.

While that might be all a bit heady, it suffices to say that the human spirit of inventiveness continues in all forms, in this case we play with nature to create sound. It seems we will never stop tinkering and toying with these resources we find around us, a great reason to be alive.

New technology adding new gestures to musical expression

Modification of music makers

Music and sound invite all forms of creativity and invention. Most likely as soon as the hand drum was invented, the mallet took shape. The hand drum gave rise to drums of all shapes and sizes, played with all forms of materials and came to utilize hands as well as legs and feet. It is human nature to invent, to improve upon and to change. One clear area that we have continually worked to evolve are musical instruments and the means by which they are played. This trend continues, though now incorporating digital technology into the tradition of instrument creation and modification, discussed below.

First, a perfect example of instrument modification to enhance performance and expression by incorporating new body gestures occurred with the piano. The addition of three main pedals over time allow a pianist to use their legs and feet to add musical expression. The three include the sustain pedal, the sostenuto pedal and the ulna corda (“soft”) pedal. The sustain pedal, the most right of the pedals, lengthens the time the hammered strings reverberate. When a key is struck on a piano, a hammer hits three tuned strings below and cause them to ring. When the key is let go, the hammer falls onto the string to stop it’s ringing. When the sustain pedal is pressed, a damper bar is lifted that usually dampers the reverberations of all the strings and as a result, a rich sustain (reverberation) follows the played note.

A second pedal is The sostenuto pedal in the middle is similar. However, it only sustains the notes played while the pedal is pressed, but not notes played when released. Using this, pianists can hold bass notes out while played higher melodies over it’s sustain. The third pedal is the ulna corda pedal, also known as the soft pedal. When the una corda pedal is pressed, it shifts the hammer to the right so that only two strings are hit for a particular note instead of the normal three. This results in a softer sound.  The reason I bring this up is because the adaptations to the piano through the addition of these three pedals is an early harbinger of some new technological developments that allow instrumentalists and creators to utilize more body parts to express music, both on a professional level and for kids. So, we bring in …

The MIDI wireless ring: musical gestures with your hands


“How a connected ring enhances musical expression and creativity”
– Enhancia

Of all the wearable sound technology discussed in this post, the first is the most formidable in ingenuity and is geared toward trained instrumentalists. French company Enhancia promises to release this revolutionary technology: a MIDI ring to be worn on a player’s index finger that allows a performer to create musical expression through finer than normal movements and hand gestures. According to Enhancia’s press kit, the ring is an evolution of a “musical glove” developed through a collaboration with a French Music conservatory to assist children with disabilities interact with and create music. The glove allowed new realms of musical control, such as playing drums in the air. From this, the developers began to explore how they could release similar technology to musicians that would enhance musical performance. Thus, they decided to create a device that would allow already accomplished musicians push their performance and creativity. Essentially, it opens up an entirely new world of musical and performance possibility. This is reminiscent of the evolution of performance that must have occurred when pedals were introduced to the piano: suddenly dynamics and sustain control were available, expanding control through using legs and feet in addition to one’s arms and hands.

Check out the video below, at 1:30 especially, to witness evolutionary hand gesture controls:


The MIDI connected ring allows a musician to control musical effects, such as vibrato, through predefined hand movements. For example, while playing a keyboard, a musician can add variations to notes with simple hand movements. Wavering one’s hand adds vibrato for instance. This entirely new dimension of physical interaction with the instrument and the produced music creates previously unforeseen possibilities. One would think that incorporating these new movements into physical performance, will also create new ways of playing, new means of playing riffs and finger combinations and different rhythms needed to incorporate the MIDI gestures.

As Enhancia explains, nine integrated sensors and a “real-time gesture recognition algorithm” were utilized to create a motion library specific to keyboards. They have a community of musicians of different styles that provide feedback in order to ensure the MIDI ring is adaptable to diverse musical styles. This ring is accompanied by a hub that can be connected directly to a keyboard or a computer. The signals recorded by the ring’s sensors is sent wirelessly with low latency. Patents have been secured for all of their technology.

Enhancia plans to launch the first generation of the ring via Kickstarter in March 2018. There is no information yet on pricing, but they aim to deliver product by the end of 2018. The product as recently officially introduced at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas to favorable reviews. The display version was wired, but wireless function is promised. They have received a CES innovation award in the “Wearable Technologies” category and will also display at the National Association of Music Merchants Show (NAMM) in Anaheim at the end of January 2018.  In sum, the MIDI wireless ring is nothing short of revolutionary by the simple fact that it is allowing entirely new body gestures affect the manipulation and presentation of sound. Simply by waving a hand or finger, without even touching the instrument, the performer can change the expression of the emitted sound. Imagine waving a hand in the air while playing a piano. Would it add vibrato to the note? Of course not. This fact shows how technology has had an continues to have a dramatic impact on musical performance and it will surely continue to do so.

Video, teaser, and press kit can be downloaded via Google drive at the bottom of

Making music with your moves

Daigo Kusunoki is an engineer with a passion for dance. He combined these talents to create BeatMoovz, rubber wristbands that consist of a Bluetooth radio and an accelerometer (an instrument for measuring acceleration). The bands connect to an app of over 400 music and sfx sounds that allow the user to create music through movement. BeatMoovz, now called SoundMoovz, is currently manufactured by trendy toy company Cra-Z-Art and distributed and marketed by Japan-based Dmet Properties. It is operable on iOS 10+ and Android 4.4+.

“The bands pair with a smart device with Bluetooth and the companion application allows users to assign a sound to each band. The app has 40 different music, instrument and robot sounds preinstalled and more than 400 additional sounds are available for free (including karate and more). Setting the sound to a SoundMoovz band is simple and the application allows for different sets to be saved, allowing users to quickly switch between “orchestras”. There is also the “backing track function” that allows users to move to their choice of music from their device and add the sounds from the SoundMoovz as they dance along.



The wrist bands are smart devices that link via Bluetooth to an application that users can use to assign a different sound to each band. There are 40 different music, instrument and sound effects preinstalled in the app with 400 more available for free. Simplicity apparently reigns with this sound toy with a few clicks of the button and different sets can be saved, as well as the ability to move back and forth between sound banks. Seven SoundMoovz bands can link through one instance of the application, each able to use a distinct sound. This ability allows group performance of seven sound options for one user if they are courageous enough to attempt wearing 7 bands at once. Speakers can be attached to the bands for extra sonic power. SoundMoovz was chosen as a finalist for the 2017 Toy of the Year awards.

And for the Kids: Add some sounds to your day – The Moff Band

The Moff Band is a Wearable Smart Toy that adds sound effects to real life based on the gestures of the wearer. It sonically animates the movements of the user and when used with an app it becomes a larger bank of sound effects. For example, by strumming in the air the wearer can play a guitar sound. Twirling the hand let’s off magical sounds and playing air objects like drums blasts off drum sounds. Thirty sounds are included in the free Moff app that also includes ninja swords, baseball, cooking sounds and more. Moff provides new sound updates weekly through the app. The app plays on Android version 4.4+ and Apple iOS 7.1+. There are parental controls to hide a unwanted sounds. 3 colors of slap bracelets that are Bluetooth-connected allow kids of all ages to have some fun!


The Inspiring and Musically Powerful World of DIY Instruments

The Inspiring and Musically Powerful World of DIY Instruments

What is a musical instrument? It is an object that creates sound for the purpose of creating music. The definition of  “music” is a topic for another post, but for our purposes here let’s assume that we all know what music is, or at least have our own interpretation of what constitutes music. Regardless, musical instruments have been a vital part of human culture that dates back to the dawn of human history. There are reports of flutes made from mammoth ivory found in Germany that are dated to be close to 43,000 years old. These early DIY musicians had a different means for securing instruments than we do today: they made the instruments themselves. In contrast, in today’s world, many of us think of musical instruments as products made by a manufacturer in a factory, or meticulously crafted with the highest quality tools and technology in a professional workshop. They are consumer items that we consider products to purchase from music stores or bought used from other musicians. However, we must remember that for the majority of human history, instruments were
handmade, and most likely by the musician themselves.  Below are three impactful instruments assembled by the musicians themselves that create stunning results, ranging from
the simplistic to the complex.

DIY Percussion: Power Through Simplicity

Very likely the first instruments created by man were percussion pieces, as they require little effort to produce. Anything, really, can be used to create a drum. Related to this, my personal favorite DIY instruments are percussive as they can be so simple and yet used to create incredible rhythmic performances live and in the studio. One drumming set up that deserves recognition is the construction-bucket drum sets that are used in cities throughout the world by street musicians. They are used on streets throughout Washington DC in the United States and traditionally have been used by street musicians to play DC “Go-go” beats, a rhythmic music that originated in and is special to that particular city. These drums are made from buckets that originally held paint or plaster and have been tossed from construction sites, coupled with the orange cones used for caution during road repair and construction. Ingeniously, a player mounts two buckets atop the cones by simply draping the metal handles over the top, one on each side for balance, and voila, a drum set. Different sized buckets produce different tones, and often the players use pieces of wood instead of traditional drumsticks in the true DIY spirit. In addition to this set-up, I have also seen “bass drum” accompaniment in which a drummer simply uses an upside down massive plastic trashcan. Generally, shopping carts are used to move the set from location to location. This may seem simple to create, but often the beauty of genius is its simplicity. Furthermore, the beats that the players produce can be top-notch.

following video must be included as well, as these Chicago street drummers take
DIY to its most basic level, simple and awesome, one bucket each.

Pipe Guy: Unique Flair with Techno Intent

Related to
percussion instruments are mallet driven instruments such as the xylophone and
the marimba, glockenspiel, and the vibraphone. A musician named Jake Clark, who
goes under the moniker “Pipe Guy,” creates a similar type of instrument, but
with his own unique flair. And, his mallets are flip-flops. He uses PVC pipe to
build elaborate multilayered instruments, beaten with flip-flops, to produce
dance music, which is astoundingly sonically similar in tone to synth sounds
used in traditional house and techno music. He began on the streets of
Adelaide, South Australia, and has since moved to the stage. He has a presence
on Facebook under the user name
pip3guy and seems to be constantly
building new set-ups. His creations are difficult to explain so viewing this
video is the easiest way to understand.

The most
impressive element of Pipe Guy’s instruments is the original way in which he
plays them as dance music instruments. Pipe Guy’s use of PVC pipe is in the
vein of a multitude of DYI instruments such as flutes, xylophones, rain sticks
and more that can be created with PVC pipe. But Pipe Guy personally takes the
material to a higher level of complexity for DIY instrument creators and
carries it into a specific music genre: techno. Now, it must be stated, there
are similar and more massive instruments created by the producers for
professional outfits such as the Blue Man group, easily found on Youtube and
wildly impressive. However, Pipe Guy is one-man-show, a true DIY musician.
Pipe Guy has tuned his instruments to use a minor scale, common in traditional
techno. Essentially, he uses the same physics of sound employed by anyone
creating an instrument from piping, regardless of material. Basically, making music
with pipes occurs through creating pressure waves by beating on one end of the
pipe. The length of the pipe determines the note, as different lengths of pipe
create different wave lengths. Interestingly, the width of the pipe changes the
tone of the sound, but not the note. The thickness of Pipe Guy’s choice of PVC
affords him the deeper tones and most likely his choice of rubbery flip-flops
affords the buzzing electronic sound he is creating. A drumstick would create a
higher faster popping hit, whereas the flip-flops provide a softer punch and
perhaps allow the pipes to reverberate more. 
Here is what happens when Pipe Guy’s PVC instrument meets a street
bucket player called “Techno Hobo”:

Mark Applebaum: The Ultimate Level of DIY Musical

The third example of DIY musical instruments
requires the high technological know-how and the creator is a PhD and an
associate professor of music at Stanford University, named Mark Applebaum. He
is a renowned composer and has made significant contributions in orchestral,
chamber, operatic, choral, and electro-acoustic music, which has been performed
throughout the world. He states that after learning and mastering different
types of musical instruments he becomes bored, and therefore creates new
instruments. While there are many examples of fresh new instruments, it may be
that Applebaum’s creations take the cake. He specifically states in the below
video that “boredom,” not lack of funds, or the need to build something, is the
catalyst for his creations. In other words, he is inspired by his boredom and
makes incredible creations as a result. He is tired of traditional instruments and
music from the traditional cannon, such as Beethoven and therefore has created in
this instance a musical instrument that is, simply, incredible. This instrument,
called the MOUSEKETEER is demonstrated at 4:42 in this video:

As shown, his fantastic conglomeration of objects
constituting the Mouseketeer includes a massive array of items such as door
stops, combs, whistles, strange pieces of metal, wood, and plastic, bells, as
well as a live bank of electronics that the somehow influences the sounds
emitted. The instrument appears to be a one in all entire orchestral percussion
team. It is more than that, in fact, it produces both musical sounds as well as
sound effects. He can play this with mallets and a bow, and most likely in many
other ways. The mix from the instruments apparently is fed through the
electronic sound bank.
As he states, humorously, he is the “world’s
greatest Mouseketeer player.” Which is true if one considers this interesting
statement. A DIY musician is truly the greatest player of their instrument in
the world as their instrument is unique and they are the unique creators. They
are inventors, as Applebaum calls himself. Musicianship and invention go hand
in hand because what is original music, but a fresh invention of sound. Musicians
and sound designers are inventors. They are designers of material and sound. 
Whether simple or complex, all three examples in
this post are impactful, rather through their raw musical power such as the
bucket drums and drummers in the first example, the novelty and originality and
unique presentation/vision of Pipe Guy, or the complex technological design of
Mark Applebaum. All three are DIY, though of course Applebaum’s takes special
engineering and knowledge of electronics. The point is, music can be created in
an infinite multitude of ways for an infinite number of purposes.  Any object, or set of objects, coupled with a
unique vision and the intent and motivation of the inventor/musician will
result in new musical creations.  Surely
in the future we will continue to see people make fascinating new combinations
of materials that create never-before-seen instruments. Only the imagination of
the human mind limits the possibilities, and the human imagination is