The Augmented Tonoscope: The Aesthetics of Sound & Vibration

My proposal outline for the Form RD1 MP – Application to register for the degree of Master of Philosophy (with the possibility of transfer to Doctor of Philosophy).

Research Question

How far can artistic investigation into Cymatics – the study of wave phenomenon and vibration – contribute towards a deeper understanding of the interplay between sound and image in Visual Music?

Aims & Objectives

The term Cymatics (from Greek: κῦμα “wave”) was coined by Dr Hans Jenny (1967, 1972) who studied this subset of modal wave phenomena using a device of his own design – the ‘tonoscope’. John Telfer (2010) explains – “Sound can induce visible pattern. When physical matter is vibrated with sound it adopts geometric formations.”

I aim to develop this line of research by exploring the aesthetics of cymatic patterns and forms. Can the inherent geometries within sound provide a meaningful basis for a visual music? Will augmenting these physical effects with virtual simulations realise a real-time correlation between the visual and the musical?

Key objectives include:

  • designing, fabricating and crafting a sonically and visually responsive hybrid analogue/digital instrument;
  • producing a series of artistic works for live performance, screening and installation – the main evidence I will submit;
  • writing an accompanying thesis and collecting an ʻevidence box’ of materials.


The project will develop through the following stages – with several running in parallel:

Year One

  • map the field and establish a solid foundation of complementary writing;
  • determine critical frameworks to guide the research;
  • build a series of experimental analogue tonoscopes;
  • design the virtual system;

Year Two

  • code a series of prototype digital tonoscopes;
  • map and critique relevant artistic and aesthetic influences;
  • integrate the virtual system into the physical device;

Year Three

  • practice with the Augmented Tonoscope and produce new work;
  • write a 30-40k word thesis and produce supporting materials.


There is a long and rich history of scientific and artistic study into the aesthetic and theoretical relationships between the aural and visual. This evolving practice is broadly defined by the term Visual Music which currently includes:

  • the use of musical structures in visual imagery;
  • methods or devices which translate sounds or music into a related visual presentation;
  • and systems which convert music or sound directly into visual forms (and vice versa) by means of a mechanical instrument, an artistʼs interpretation, or a computer.

While my research is located within this wider context it has a clear focus in the last of these definitions.

The study of wave phenomenon and vibration has yielded a significant body of empirical evidence, theory and practical application:

  • Dr Hans Jenny – Cymatics Vol. 1 (1967) & Vol. 2 (1972);
  • Ernst Chladni – Discoveries in the Theory of Sound (1787).

The work of these pioneers has inspired contemporary research into Cymatics as a means to reveal a deeper understanding into areas such as harmonicism, acoustics and spatial form:

  • John Telferʼs Cymatic Music (2011);
  • Benlloyd Goldsteinʼs Cymatica (2009).

Jenny emphasises the “triadic nature” of Cymatics – hear the sound, see the pattern, feel the vibration – highlighting three essential aspects and ways of viewing a unitary phenomenon and suggesting the potential for a multimodal sensory instrument. Telferʼs audiovisual science and music project investigates the possibilities of creating a system of visual, or rather visible music – and while he favours manufacturing acoustic musical instruments he recognises the possibility of an electronic (and digital) approach that I plan to adopt.

Thereʼs also much inspiration and insight to be gleaned from the realisation, process and methodology of a wide range of contemporary artistic output exploring Cymatics as well as software and ʻopen sourceʼ creative coding modeling its effects and manifestations.

Research Method

I plan to draw from the model of research methods and critical approaches developed through the PaR initiative.

I intend to devise my own robust, investigative yet creative research technique and critical reflection tool – an ʻartistic experimental methodʼ. My approach is to source germane and concise definitions for a set of artistic paradigms – beauty, aesthetics, authorship, process, serendipity and technology misuse – and then apply these as a framework of systematic measures to gauge, reflect on and draw effective conclusions from the outputs of a rolling series of artistic experiments – gathering this ʻevidenceʼ to drive the research forward.

I also intend to keep an ʻopenʼ research journal via a WordPress blog – with documentation including a physical and digital sketchbook and online photography, video and audio – showing how the various aspects of my study inform one another through the categories of: complementary writing; critical reflection; documentation of process; artistic outputs; and review and feedback.

Developing Knowledge

This research project is unique in the field in combining the analogue and digital domains. I believe there is significant potential in the real-time, dynamic and aesthetic interplay between audio and augmented visual outputs to provide new insights and understanding into the cymatic relationship between sound and image – which can only be addressed by designing and building a new hybrid device.

I plan to share my knowledge and insights with the research and wider communities through a decidedly ‘open source’ modus operandi – making my own evolving tool set, methodology, code and software, electronic and design schematics, documentation and outputs freely available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike licence.


Chladni, E.F.F. (1787), Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klanges (“Discoveries in the Theory of Sound”), Leipzig: Weidmanns Erben und Reich

Jenny, H. (2001), Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena and Vibration, New Hampshire: Volk, J.

Goldstein, B. (2009), Cymatica, http://cymatica.net/ [accessed 8 March 2011]

Telfer, J. (2010), “Introduction” Cymatic Music, http://www.cymaticmusic.co.uk/ [accessed 8 March 2011]