This is the last post I will be doing for this course.

It has been a wild ride and I couldn’t have done it without the help of my beautiful daughter, Lauren. It is her artwork that has been featured at the top of most of the posts.

I have considered the different ways in which we interpret  and process information and tried to have something for everyone. Music, visual artistry, virtual kinaesthetic  – trying to get you all out there hands on with the Earth and exploring the emotional links provided by the sounds. You can look into this further if you explore the cognitive sciences.

I’ll leave you with one of her images exploring the relationship we have with nature. Artwork © Lauren Delora Sears.


Silvereyeswith face-


Singing Sands and Syria

Today’s song is the fabulous Leona Lewis singing Footprints in the sand. Live!

Artwork © Lauren Delora Sears


One of my fondest memories is of a trip we did to Turkey and Syria back in 1996. Yes that long ago! We had our three daughters with us aged between three and thirteen years old.

We did all the touristy things in Istanbul like the Aya Sofia,Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. It is amazing just to be in a city that has been around so long that its name has changes a few times.

The boat trip up the Bosphorus should have been a relaxing affair but a certain three year old kept asking annoying questions. When we got back we ate fish sandwiches and watched the traffic stream across the Galata Bridge. Ah yes, the bridge between East and West – the whole place oozes history.

We caught a plane down to Adana, on the South Coast, and I remember thinking that it was odd to have the passengers all clap when the pilot made a safe landing. I have since learned that it isn’t the only place in the world that does that and it doesn’t mean that there was a near emergency landing!

When we left Adana we were headed for Syria on a local bus. The music is amazing, no matter which song was playing it seemed to keep beat with the bounce of the bus. It would have been an amazingly bumpy ride without it.

Given the events of the last couple of years, the time we spent in Syria, is priceless. It wasn’t the kind of holiday a typical family from Oamaru had, back then. Being a Muslim country, the etiquette between the men and women, had interesting repercussions for our daughters. We had been to Malaysia before but this was so different. Women aren’t allowed to sit next to men who aren’t their brothers or husbands so while it was fine for the younger two, it wasn’t for the thirteen year old. It was musical chairs every time we went on the bus.

The whole trip was stunning and it cemented, in us, an enduring love for the Middle East. We have been to Oman a couple of times since and the countryside is quiet and peaceful – apart from giant stinging hornets about 5 cm long!

One thing I never did get to do was go out and camp out in the desert. We did get to ride on camels and pay a fortune for the photos but camping out under stars, among the sand dunes would be a fabulous experience.

I’d love to go back to Oman, especially. Oman is one of the places where you can hear singing sand dunes. The idea of being out there for a few days and hearing the sand sing seems just so cool. It’s not new. Marco Polo was reported to hear them. It has a big deep voice, though, and sings during avalanches. The avalanches can be triggered by people walking on them. The frequency doesn’t really depend on the size or shape of the grains but the diameter. And they all stick together – all of the dunes in an area sing at the same frequency.

So how come not all sand dunes sing?

It seems that only dry, well sorted sand sings. It can be quite loud – up to 110dB. That’s about as loud as a car horn or a rock concert. You can only last 30 minutes with unprotected ears at that level without suffering some hearing damage!

The oscillation frequencies at the angle of repose (33°) are all harmonic vibrations. If you want to know more, about that, check out my other blogs. Flames Stand up for Hallelujah Part 1 and Flames Stand up for Hallelujah Part 2 

Flames stand up for Hallelujah (Part 2)

In Part 1, of Flames stand up for Hallelujah, I explained standing waves and used the immensely popular fire-breathing Ruben’s tubes to illustrate them.

We can now begin to explore particular lyrics of Hallelujah, the song by Leonard Cohen, that mentions “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift”.

To recap, standing wave patterns form from perfectly timed interference of two waves in a medium – passing along a string fixed at one end, for example. Take a quick look at the previous post if you need to refresh your memory.

So, while the waves travel in opposite directions they still have the same frequency. The frequency that produces a single standing wave on a given string is called its resonant frequency. That will change according to what it’s made from and its length, tension and thickness, among other things.

The lowest frequency that produces a standing wave is the fundamental. It’s also called the 1st harmonic. It looks like this:


Fundamental or first harmonic

Fundamental or first harmonic


The arrows show the oscillating movement of the string.

Any frequencies higher than the 1st harmonic are called overtones and they only occur at particular frequencies. The frequency that produces two standing waves, in the same length of string, is called the 2nd Harmonic (1st overtone). Three standing waves becomes the 3rd harmonic (2nd overtone) and so on. So each harmonic is a simple multiple of the fundamental.



Harmonics are the nodes of a vibrating string. After W axell 

This is called a harmonic series. There are many different series because the fundamental can be any note. What is important is the relationship between the harmonics and that doesn’t change.

When it comes to musical notes, the distance between the 1st harmonic and the 2nd, is an octave. No matter which note frequency you start with the 2nd harmonic will always be twice its frequency. If one note, for example concert A, has a frequency of 440 Hertz (Hz) then A one octave above will be twice that at 880Hz and the one below will be 220Hz (half). In fact, any note vibrating at twice the frequency will be an octave higher so the 6th harmonic will be an octave higher than the 3rd. The eighth will be an octave higher than the fourth.

We can see that the ratio is 2:1 – the higher tone makes two vibrations in the time that the lower one makes one. Similarly, between the 2nd and 3rd the ratio is 3:2. That is, the higher tone makes three vibrations in the time it takes the lower one to make two. However, when a string is plucked the tone we hear is the sum of all its harmonics blended together. It’s what gives an instrument its particular sound.

The relationship between these frequencies is what determines whether notes played together sound good or not. If they sound good they are consonant; if they don’t they sound totally out of tune and dissonant. The lower the ratio, the more often the waves coincide and the sweeter the sound it has. The more dissonant frequencies have high ratios.

Chords are several notes played at once. Three notes played together form a triad which forms the basis of many popular songs. It is important to get the right combination of notes, though, or we end up cringing!

Musician playing guitar

Pitches that are too close together sound “off” so a chromatic scale of twelve is used to make the steps all the same distance apart in an octave.

A musical scale is a set of notes ordered by fundamental frequency. Each scale is made up from a select bunch of 7 tones from the twelve no more than 2 and a half steps apart.

Two common scales are major (happy sounding) and minor (sad sounding). The key, is the starting note for the scale. Most people are familiar with the DO RE ME FA SO LA TI DO degrees of the scale – 7 tones plus the return tone to bring us home and not leave us hanging. Try singing it without the last DO and you’ll see what I mean! These 8 notes form the diatonic scale.

The C major scale has the notes C D E F G A B as shown on this keyboard:


Each chord is built from a combination of particular notes and there are 7 diatonic chords in the C major scale. Each has a function relative to the key note and they are designated with Roman numerals. Have a look at the “F”. It is the fourth note of the C major scale. The F chord built on this 4th note of the scale is called subdominant or IV. The G chord built on the 5th note is called dominant or V. So a chord progression from F to G is “the fourth, the fifth”.  In this case the VI is the relative minor the so-called minor fall and the major lift is the progression from G to A minor (VI) back to F. Hallelujah!

It has been fun exploring standing waves and Ruben’s tubes to figure out the lyrics to the song. And it’s good to know no matter how many times I listen to it I still get goose bumps.













Flames stand up for Hallelujah (Part 1)

The song that inspired this post is the popular Hallelujah written by Leonard Cohen and sung here by Jeff Buckley.

Artwork © by Lauren Delora Sears.

One of the great things about staying in post-graduate residential accommodation, here in Dunedin, is undoubtedly meeting some great people from all around the world. I met a lovely Dutch professor here – Maria. We chatted, on and off, as our busy schedules allowed and met up for drinks a few times. On one of those occasions, in fact the last one, we drank a glass or two of wine and played each other some of our favourite music. We both love classical music, and other genres, but at one point she showed me a clip of an Irish priest – Ray Kelly – surprising a couple, at their wedding ceremony, by singing Hallelujah. He did a fantastic job and was happy that I watched because it went viral and several versions have been taken down. Apparently Sony, who own the rights to the original song, is now looking to make a recording with Father Kelly.

It reminded me that Hallelujah is one of those songs which gives me goosebumps. Most people have their favourite rendition of this song. Jeff Buckley’s, seems to be the all-time favourite, with almost 43 million views on YouTube. Although Father Kelly’s managed his 34 million hits in just a few days.

Then there is an amazing version by an eight year old gospel singer! A couple of versions by young women have recently appeared which are worth listening to – Jodi, Alana, Morgan and Hannah Trigwell.

However, the version I usually play is by the talented Michael Henry and Justin Robinett. Interestingly, it’s the two versions with harmonising voices which draws out my goosebumps, as good as the others are. These guys are seriously talented and they have a great sense of humour as their YouTube videos show. But it’s their stunning display, playing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, that blows me away. The play simultaneously on twin drum sets and two keyboards while passing the drumsticks back and forth between them. It’s not one of my favourite songs but I love this!

Back to Hallelujah, though.

The lyrics in the first verse got me wondering. It goes:

I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music do you?

It goes like this the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

 But what exactly is the fourth, the fifth, or a minor fall and a major lift?

In order to find the answer to that, we first need a small detour, to explore what standing waves are.

Back in my very first post I explained how sound is energy that moves air molecules. Air is first compressed then extended (rarefaction) and is heard as sound in our ears. The sound is actually the minute variations in air pressure caused by the movement of the molecules. As they bunch up, during compression, the pressure increases and as they spread out again, during extension, the pressure drops. So the sound pressure created by a sound wave may be higher or lower than the surrounding air.

This principle is spectacularly demonstrated with the popular physics experiment using a Ruben’s tube. A Ruben’s tube is a long metal tube, sealed at both ends, with evenly spaced holes along its length. One of the seals is attached to a frequency generator or speaker and the other to a propane gas source which pumps the tube full of gas. The gas is lit as it escapes from the holes.

Particular frequencies for that tube will create standing waves and this is where the beauty of the tube comes in. When the frequencies are just right the flames emanating from the holes will show the pattern of the standing wave. There have been numerous posts lately on the topic since a video of a pyro board was put on YouTube.

So what is a standing wave?

Waves can be generated in the air, for example a woodwind instrument, or along a string such as a guitar string. It’s best explained by the idea of a string which is fixed at one end. Try it by fixing a piece of rope to a tree.

If a single pulse (wave) is sent along the string it will be reflected back along the string, once it bounces off the tree, except it will be upside-down. If another pulse is sent, soon after, the wave travelling in the opposite direction meets the first and they interfere with each other. This interference can be destructive or constructive. If several pulses are made, the result on the string usually looks pretty chaotic as they either add to, or subtract from, the others at different points.

However, if they are well timed, a standing wave can be created. Here, the advancing wave and the reflected wave meet and the whole string oscillates up and down.

Standing waves caused by interference between advancing wave and reflected wave.

Standing waves caused by interference between advancing wave and reflected wave.

The nodes are the places where there is no displacement and the antinodes are where there is maximum displacement. Each frequency has its own pattern.

Now back to the Ruben’s tube.

The height of the flames is proportional to the gas flow which depends on the pressure inside the tube relative to the outside. Since the tube is sealed, the gas has only one way to escape – out through the holes! The pressure it is under at the point where the gas passes under the hole determines how high it will go.

The pressure inside the tube before applying the sound is the same so the flames will all be the same height. When the sound is applied, at one end, the compressed waves produce high flames and the rarefaction produces low flames. The lowest flames correspond to the nodes and the highest flames to the antinodes.

Ruben's Tube standing wave pattern showing flame height relationship to pressure.

Ruben’s Tube standing wave pattern showing flame height relationship to pressure. Credit: Tools for Teaching Science

So now that we have the standing waves sorted, I can look at what this all means for those Hallelujah lyrics in Part 2.

Move and be moved – the power of music

Artwork © Lauren Delora Sears

Do you ever just start moving to a piece of music and you feel like you can’t help yourself? It can be embarrassing in public but nowadays I don’t care. Unfortunately, for the past few weeks I have been too busy to listen to music. I know. I know.  That seems so crazy but it’s true. For me it is unheard of – I love music and if it has a beat, well, something starts to move.

Our bodies respond to all kinds of external stimuli. With music, we usually respond to rhythm first. Sometimes, I find myself toe tapping to music I don’t even like. And I feel compelled to sway, jiggle, or sashay across the floor – at least when I’m alone – when invigorating music comes on. It would take something totally abhorrent to my personal sense of aesthetic to stop me from doing so.

Back in my school days there was a sound that, even now, creates a more noticeable and lasting response. Fingernails on a blackboard! It doesn’t seem quite the same with a whiteboard. The sensation is so vivid I can just hear the words ‘fingernails on a blackboard’ or imagine it happening and it evokes that spinal chill. I have already had 3 or 4 just writing that sentence!

Even better is the intensely pleasurable experience we get from particular sounds. The neurons in our brains get quite excited by specific characteristics of sound and produces the amazing sensation of goosebumps or aesthetic chills when we hear music that we adore. There are certain pieces of music that many people respond to – Puccini’s Requiem is one. Others are more specific to individuals and some don’t get it at all. The goosebumps are definitely a very pleasurable experience and it lets you know that the music has hit that sweet spot. The music activates the pleasure and reward structures deep within the brain which are also active in response to other natural and pleasurable stimuli such as food or sex.



Photo credit: Ildar Sagdejev


Certain musical events within a song can trigger the reaction and for me it usually involves harmony and or powerful voices.  But not just any powerful voices. There is clearly something very particular, yet indefinable, that sets it off. Sometimes it is unexpected. At other times I know exactly which singer, piece of music, and part in the piece that will do it. It enhances the whole feeling. I used to try to fool myself. I’d think of something else, hoping to avoid it, but some pieces are so strongly resonant they slip through the defences. Before I know it, the hairs on the back of the neck are standing to attention so I no longer try. One of my earliest memories of a song that elicited the goosebumps was the harmony in Eagles’ Seven Bridges Road.

The technical name for goosebumps is piloerection. It occurs in many animals including porcupines and, of course, frightened cats. When threatened their hair, fur or spines stands on end to make them appear bigger.

How does the skin get those bumps?


Goosebumps (piloerection)

Goosebumps (piloerection)

The hair follicles have tiny muscles attached to them called Arrector pili muscles. When they contract they pull the surrounding skin downwards creating a depression leaving the follicles high and dry – the bumps!

The hairs stand erect stretching upwards into the air and increasing sensitivity to small stimuli. With threats, you’re on high alert and hypersensitive. With music, it maximises the sensation and it is just glorious!

Psycho-physiologists can test our physiological response to music and match it to the subjective feeling of the listener. The pairing of the physiological response with subjective feeling is very useful for emotion research. The most common measures of such emotional arousal are the Skin Conductance Response (SCR) and the Heart Rate (HR).

The level of arousal we experience can be directly measured with SCR.  Like the cat and porcupine, our bodies are geared to respond to threat using the ‘fight or flight’ response. Either of those requires some serious activity! The human body prepares by sweating more to cool itself down. It happens all the time, as we respond to emotions or thought, but it occurs at such low levels we barely notice it. When the threat becomes large enough those sweat glands go into overdrive. We all know the sweaty palm feeling when we’re particularly anxious about something, like exams, job interviews or stage performances. By placing electrodes on a finger, and placing a small painless current across them, scientists can measure the increased skin conductance from the perspiration.

Music has the ability to affect our emotional states and transport us to a different time or place. It can rev us up to provide motivation via those reward centres when there is something particularly mundane to deal with ahead of us – think housework music! We can also calm ourselves down and change our arousal levels, a fact long known by mothers who have sung a lullaby to a baby at bedtime.

Music is one of life’s pleasures that is intensely personal and emotional so it must be strange to never experience its thrills and chills. Scientists are now beginning to relate these responses and experiences to aspects of personality and even our genetic code. I can’t wait to see what they discover.

Silvereye Sopranos

Today’s song (© Department of Conservation) comes straight from the beak of the Silvereye (Zorsterops lateralis). And the gorgeous art work above is © Lauren Delora Sears.

Every year, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, we observe the small ritual of putting our clocks back an hour. It signals the end of warm summer evenings and mentally prepares us for the crisp autumn bite. This year, my partner and I were noisily woken up to attend another ritual – a fire drill. We stumbled about, bleary-eyed, searching for suitable garments to wear so we could head for the exit, half-decent. We gathered with the other 80-odd residents of our college, in the drizzle, at the designated area in the carpark. The fire brigade turned up soon after and checked out the building while we huddled together for roll call. Formalities complete, we were ushered inside and all of us trooped back to bed.

It was about 5.15am by the time we returned and we had been up just long enough to make it hard to get back to sleep. So I let my mind wander. I thought of the intensely glorious colours that autumn brings in this part of the country precisely because of the cold. In the hills, the ground crunches underfoot and frosty tussock twinkles in the early morning light. Across the paddocks, near where I used to live, the roar of the stags would carry easily in the still night air. But, even better, is the arrival of the flocks of silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) to the garden each April.

These little birds are unbelievably cute. In New Zealand they are also known as waxeyes and are named for the small ring of white feathers encircling each eye. Silvereyes are members of the Passeriformes – perching birds with specific toe and leg arrangements to help them perch on flat surfaces. Passeriformes also have the most developed songs and are informally known as the songbirds. They are the ones happily singing away as part of the dawn chorus.

Birds have been heard to increase the pitch of their songs and calls in noisy urban environments compared with their rural counterparts. There seem to be two main theories to explain this. The first, is that the birds sing higher because the lower pitch vocalisations can be masked by low frequency noise from human activities. The second, is that the pitch is raised as a result of singing louder. This is also known as the Lombard effect and it occurs in humans as well.

Recently, scientists from Australia have carried out experiments to try to find out which of these is more likely. And those adorable silvereyes, who are known to increase their pitch in urban environments, were centre stage! They exposed rural and urban birds to both low and high frequency background noise and noted the responses. If the birds were trying to sing above the noise by singing louder, and that happened to raise the pitch, they would do so no matter what the frequency of the background noise. However, if they were trying to adjust their frequency to stop interference, they would raise it in the face of low frequency noise but lower it during bouts of high frequency noise. The result? It seems the silvereyes are pretty adaptable and can adjust up or down as they need to.

Regardless of the pitch of their songs, I’m looking forward to seeing them later in April when they come into my garden to raid the urban larder. Who can resist those faces?




The Philosopher, the Physicist and the Red Paintings

Today’s piece of thematic inspiration comes from David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” but this time performed by Beck.

Early December in Edinburgh is crisp and humming. Hordes of people in long coats and vibrant scarves, carrying coloured bags, stride purposefully around the central city streets. Everyone moves quickly, leaving a wake of coalescing vapour trails that dance in and out of existence. Bottlenecks of people squeeze through markets full of delectables and desirables. Sweet aromas emanate from every second stall and glasses of warm mulled wine beckon. The art of festive seduction is in full swing.

Edinburgh Castle towers over the city on a large rocky outcrop with an air of majestic permanence. It’s a valuable orientation device when exploring the labyrinth of historic closes and wynds. The comforting echoes of clacking footsteps along these cobblestone  thoroughfares and the perpetual braying of bagpipes in the distance, leaves you in no doubt as to where you are.

We were here, this time, to see the The Red Paintings  – an Australian rock band known for its quirky theatrical and art-sci-fi-themed performances which often include live body painting. One of my daughters, who models/performs as Icy T’Rain, had modelled for them in Melbourne, where she lived, and had contacted them again knowing that her time in Edinburgh would coincide with their gig. It was a great chance to see her on stage as part of the act. It’s a creative and emotionally-charged production incorporating violins and cello and an eccentric array of props.

Some of this creativity has been inspired by lead singer/songwriter, Trash McSweeney, who developed music-colour synesthesia after a life-threatening seizure. He shares that creative vision with the world fuelled by his experiences. Synesthesia is a genetically based neurological phenomenon where the stimulation of one sense (in this case auditory:music) causes another sense to be experienced (visual:colour). The eliciting stimulus is called the inducer and experienced sensation is called concurrent. There are many pairings of these senses but the inducer is often letters, words or numbers (grapheme) and the concurrent is often a visual element.  Those who have this experience (synesthetes) have no control over it. They often possess increased levels of creativity, a propensity towards careers or hobbies in the arts, and enhanced memory. What an amazingly rich experience it must be to see music as colour, or touch or taste!

Neuroimaging provides scientists with a tool to investigate the physical basis for synaesthesia. It appears that there are structural and functional differences detected in the brains of synesthetes. A recent study by Anna Zamm and her colleagues found enhanced white matter connectivity in music-colour synesthetes. White matter is a structural part of the central nervous system that transmits signals from one area of the brain to another.

MRI scan of white matter structure in the human brain    Copyright: 3D Slicer

MRI scan of white matter structure in the human brain Copyright: 3D Slicer

Some famous synesthetes include physicist Richard Feynman and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The popular and creative Feynman saw his equations in colour. I definitely would have been more interested in physics at school if the equations were colourful. Especially if the classes had been given by the bongo-playing Nobel laureate! Feynman’s contribution to physics and the popularising of it is monumental and ongoing.

The impact of Wittgenstein’s work is no less expansive and he is considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. His legacy around language endures to this day informing a wide variety of social sciences as well as philosophy.

There is scientific resurgence of enthusiasm about what the study of synesthesia can offer to increase understanding of perception and cognition in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. Professor Jamie Ward at the University of Sussex, who is a current synesthesia researcher, has written a book called “The Frog Who Croaked Blue” for those who are interested exploring it further. Public interest in synesthesia is also high – it is certainly a fascinating topic which captures the imagination. Even the London Symphony Orchestra has an upcoming series of concerts, “Music in Colour” celebrating the works of two synesthetic composers: Alexander Scriabin and Olivier Messiaen.