Scientists Turned Spiderwebs Into Music, And It's Hauntingly Beautiful

Spiders rely on the vibrations in their webs to perceive their environment, and now we can hear their mysterious music.
April 12, 2021, 1:00pm
Scientists Turned Spiderwebs Into Music, And It's Hauntingly Beautiful
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Spiderwebs are some of the most alluringly complex natural phenomena that you are likely to encounter on a morning walk. Spiders use the minute vibrations in their webs to perceive their environment, so what might it sound like if we could actually hear their mysterious music? 

This was the goal of a data sonification project that puts humans in spiders’ shoes to experience spiderwebs. Researchers say the project could eventually be used to reverse engineer spiders’ reality and communicate with the arachnids.

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“When you see the structure of a spiderweb, it reminds you somewhat of a harp or a stringed instrument. So the question came up, ‘What if you were to think about modeling these strings as vibrating objects?’” said Markus Buehler, an MIT engineering professor who leads the project. “What we're trying to do is expand how we generate sound in music and how we compose music.” Buehler presented about his team’s data sonification research on Monday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The result is hauntingly beautiful, a soft and constant rustle of bells. My cat looked at me strangely when I played the spider music, as a video displaying a three-dimensional rendering of a web being stretched evoked the sound of an airplane taking off. Another video created by the team of researchers gave the perspective of a person navigating the spiderweb in virtual reality. It sounded like the score of a thriller movie, or the first bars of “Time” by Pink Floyd.

Much like how visualization presents data in digestible charts and graphs, sonification translates data into interpretable sounds. The technique has been applied to a variety of data sources, from objects in outer space to the U.S. housing bubble to the effects of climate change on forest composition. But sonifying the structures of spiderwebs was a particularly fitting choice because spiders rely on sound and vibration to understand their environment, Buehler said.

“They're essentially blind, and so the way they experience the world is actually through vibrations, either through the web as a giant receptor of vibrations or by communicating with each other—they look for mates by tapping on the floor,” he said.

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Working in the range of sounds that can be heard by the human ear, Buehler and his team used the physics of spiderwebs to assign audible tones to a given string’s unique tension and vibration. Summing up every string’s tone created an interactive model of a web that could produce sound through manipulation or VR navigation.

This type of presentation is not typical for ACS, an annual conference for chemistry professionals, but Buehler said he hopes to “push the boundary a little bit” in order to reach a broader audience for this work. He added that his group has shared the sonified data with the public in other ways, including as immersive performances pre-pandemic

“You hear something that in the beginning sounds quite dissonant for the human ear, but after you spend some time in the web, it becomes strangely familiar,” Buehler said. Once you’ve spent enough time with the music, he added, it’s hard to go back: “I’ve had this experience myself—when you go to one of our concerts, you go back to your car to drive home and you listen to some music on the radio or your cell phone, and it sounds kind of weird.”

Buehler and a longtime collaborator, Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno, also have more ambitious plans for the project. Saraceno recorded the sounds of spiders; once he can return to the lab to conduct experiments, Buehler will generate spider sounds with AI—similarly to how it’s used to generate human speech and voice—and gauge the reactions of actual spiders.

For the average person, the project is a good reminder of the arbitrariness of the human perspective and the potential for music to change it, Buehler said.

“It shows that our human reference system isn't the only one. For something like a spider, there’s a whole different way of experiencing the world, and now we have an ability to see that.”