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Seeing Sound/Synthesis

I was losing my mind thinking about sine waves.

Seeing Sound/Synthesis

I built a simple oscilloscope, tearing up an old computer monitor and using my stereo to control the horizontal and vertical. A clean orange line sketches out wobbly sound waves.

Clear bass notes become large fringed ovals, snare drums transform into messy, blurred tangles. With a synthesizer, I can make interlaced, moving spiderlegs dance with each other. Shaded circles, riding other circles, curl into a moving, musical spirograph.

Complicated, arranged music looks like it sounds--twisted together, jiggling, and alive. To see the shapes within requires filters to split up the sound. Pure, nasal electronic tones work best, showing up as perfect aural geometries. They also sound the worst. When one voice sings, or one instrument plays, you can see the character of the tones, the edges in the timbre of a violin or the rich circles of the trombone, but you also see the character of the musician. My friend's singing voice shows more curves than my voice. The bass in my voice makes the image larger. When we sing together, the shapes melt and merge; the more accurate the harmonies, the less the image shivers.

Spending so much time seeing sound, the metaphors creep into the rest of my life. My months and days are waves of emotions. When they interact with the waves of other people, they harmonize or dissonate. I filter frequencies out of certain waves and allow others to resonate. I'm even planning a musical composition where I graph my moods on a scale, for one year, and use those graphs as sound waves that make up instruments.

In my life, I aim for a low frequency and moderate amplitude. The low frequency comes out as a comforting bass, one oscillation every eighty thousand heartbeats. Things happen, but not too quickly. Amplitude, or volume, stays low. Every peak, every cycle of sound, has an opposite in a valley, and one foreshadows the other. To make too much noise means great highs and deep lows. Boring as it might be, I'll take the calm and steady, instead, even if other people can't always hear me.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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