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Hans Jenny and the science of sound: cymatics.

Hans Jenny and the science of sound: cymatics.

This is not unregulated chaos; it is a dynamic but ordered pattern.


Hans Jenny (16 August 1904, Basel – 23 June 1972) was a natural scientist and physician who coined the term cymatics to explain the acoustic impacts of sound wave phenomena. To this field have contributed a number of scholars, that believed sound plays a major role in human life.

The concept of underlying vibrational patterns in the natural world dates back centuries, with Galileo Galilei being cited as an early witness to the phenomenon in his 1632 writings in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. He describes his experiences while scraping a brass plate with a chisel in an attempt to clean it. Galileo saw a high whistling sound as well as parallel streaks of brass particles that only appeared in unison with the sound.

In 1680, physicist and musician Robert Hooke observed nodal patterns formed by vibrating glass. He made repeating designs with a violin bow on a flour-covered glass plate.

In the 18th century, Ernst Chladni invented a technique to show the various modes of vibration of a rigid surface. First published in 1787 in his book Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klanges, the technique consists of drawing a bow over a (circular, square, or rectangular) plate or membrane whose surface is lightly covered with sand. When stroked, a given plate will resonate at one of its natural frequencies. The sand bounces about on the plate until settling at nodal points (areas of zero movements) thereby producing intricate patterns. These patterns are now called Chladni figures.

Table from Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klanges, 1787

Another example of how sound generates geometric patterns are the result of H. Irwine Whitty, who studied the connection between music and geometry with the aid of the harmonograph, a mechanical machine that uses pendulums to create geometric figures and drawings. He concludes that “the facts that musical notes are due to regular air-pulses, and that the pitch of the note depends on the frequency with which these pulses succeed each other, are too well known to require any extended notice”, referring to the already established works of Chladni.

Plate VIII, Harmonograph, H. Irwine Whitty, 1893

Hans Jenny took these studies further and defined a new science, Cymatics, developing devices and machines that generated frequencies on different types of mediums. In Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena and Vibration he concluded that these frequencies are not part of unregulated chaos, but rather from a dynamic and balanced system.

If you spear a little of your imagination, as you watch this film as it runs, you will see many things that answers many questions, you will see living forms, living amoeba, almost animal like creatures. You will see continents being formed, the Earth itself coming to existence, explosions, erruptions, atomic explosions and bombs. You can see all this and watch it before your eyes. Everything owes it existence solely and completely to sound.


During one of his ornithological excursions, the 14-year-old Hans was biking in the hills overlooking the Birs Valley near Dornach when his eyes were drawn to the first Goetheanum, a unique and spectacular wooden edifice erected under the inspiration and guidance of Rudolf Steiner. The youngster was captivated by the twin-lobed structure, and as fate would have it, a short time later he joined his parents and a small group of educators and public officials on a guided tour of what was to become the center of Anthroposophical teaching — a tour led by none other than Rudolf Steiner.

Thus started his exploration of Anthroposophy, a spiritual science with which he had a special connection. As with his previous religious experiences, he didn’t always get along with “Anthroposophists,” but he respected Steiner and devoured his voluminous books. Steiner, with his focus on the super-sensible spiritual component of existence, was to have the most significant impact on Jenny, offering direction for his voracious inquiry as well as a framework for his own inner strivings.

Hans Jenny published the first volume of Cymatics: The Study of Wave Phenomena in 1967, after completing a doctorate at the Rudolph Steiner School in Zürich.

In his research of the soundwave phenomena, Jenny made use of crystal oscillators and his so-called tonoscope to set plates and membranes vibrating. He spread quartz sand onto a black drum membrane 60 cm in diameter. The membrane was caused to vibrate by singing loudly through a cardboard pipe, and the sand produced symmetrical Chladni patterns. Low tones resulted in rather simple and clear pictures, while higher tones formed more complex structures.

A sonorous figure produced by piezoelectric excitation. Square steel plate 23×23
cm, thickness 1 mm. Frequency 6700 cps. In such experiments as these, the formation of
nodal lines of sand can be accurately observed. They often pile up like dunes. © Hans Jenny
A layer of glycerin has been made to vibrate by a tone acting upon a diaphragm. The result is a continuous formal pattern. © Hans Jenny
Numerous varieties of “woven” patterns are found in various materials, particularly liquids. These forms may have a cellular, honeycomb, or imbricated appearance and
are produced in the liquid by vibration. © Hans Jenny

Jenny created the tonoscope in order to observe the action of the human voice on various materials in diverse mediums. This is a basic device into which the experimenter can talk without the need for any intermediary electroacoustic equipment. Vibrations are therefore transferred to a diaphragm on which sand, powder, or liquid are put as indicators. Speaking generates figures on the diaphragm that correspond to the sound spectrum of a vowel. The pattern is distinctive not just of the sound, but also of the pitch of the speech or song.

Figures 67-69 show the vibrational patterns produced by vowels, reflecting the sound spectra and pitch of each particular sound. The material of which the diaphragm is made and the indicators used (powder, sand, liquid, etc,) are also important factors: the pattern also changes according to the quality of the individual voice. But the form remains the same as long as there is no change in the conditions of the experiment. © Hans Jenny

Because the diverse features of these phenomena are caused by vibration, we are presented with a spectrum that displays a patterned, figurative construction at one pole and kinetic-dynamic processes at the other, with the entire thing being created and perpetuated by its intrinsic periodicity. These characteristics, however, are not distinct entities; rather, they are generated from the vibrational phenomena in which they exist in their “unitariness.”

The three fields — the periodic as the basic field, with two poles of figure and dynamics — always appear as one. They are incomprehensible without one another.

If a film of liquid is irradiated by sound, patterns of the kind shown here can be revealed by the
schlieren method. A complicated lattice appears comprising squares, diagonals, and perpendiculars. Curves, circles, and radiating patterns result. © Hans Jenny

It will be seen from the selection shown in these pages that in every case there are formations, textures, and forms, we can see movements, currents, circulations, rotations, etc. and yet all these display throughout a rhythmic, serial, vibrational character.

Jenny argues that the triadic nature of vibration is found in the complex organizations of movement, of rhythmic systems (circulation and respiration), and of nerve physiology that becomes evident to us as frequencies and modulations including amplitude modulations. These systems have patterns of a serial nature and a dynamic of rhythmic impulses, that can be found in neurology, or the functioning of organs of which processes are of a chemical, thermal, energetic, kinetic, and structural kind – all defined by rhythm and vibration.

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The same may be said about breathing, the flow of breath, and the production of sound. The creation of rhythmic activities based on physiological fields of rhythmicity elevates nature’s physiological periodicity to a higher plane. The development of biological periodicity into speech is an example of this elevation to a higher plane.

John Beaulieu mentions about Jenny that he always sought to observe the whole and to understand the behavior of parts in relationship to the whole.

“What is the status of the parts, the details, the single pieces, the fragments? In the vibrational field, it can be shown that every part is, in the true sense, implicated in the whole.”

A fundamental system law states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A team of scientists examining an elephant is a popular metaphor used to explain this systems law. The difficulty is that the scientists are completely unaware that they are operating on an elephant. One scientist is examining the chemical makeup of one toenail, another is monitoring the behavior of the foot, and still another is observing the pace with which the tail wags. These points of view are disjointed. Each is one who publishes separate papers in prominent scientific publications in different areas, with no knowledge that their work is even somewhat connected.

One day, a scientist passes by and unintentionally “sees” the entire thing. She refers to the entire situation as an “elephant.” She can see how the components fit together and how they move together. Everyone thinks she’s insane, and the professionals start bickering over her concept of an “elephant.” More and more individuals start to see “the elephant,” until one day “there is an elephant” and many discrete fields of research are explained in a broader perspective.

Again and again, and in ever new forms, the cymatic method reveals the basic triadic phenomenon which man can feel and conceive himself to be. If this method can fertilize the relationship between those who create and observe, between artists and scientists, and thus between everyone and the world in which they live, and inspire them to undertake their own cymatic research and creation, it will have fulfilled its purpose.

Hans Jenny, Cymatics, A Study of Wave Phenomena and Vibration

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