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Listen to the sounds of science

In a scientist’s hands, even a blowtorch or a 50,000-year-old cave bear bone can make beautiful music. MSNBC’s Alan Boyle reports.
Pennsylvania State University's Ray Wakeland demonstrates a simple version of the daxophone. The instrument may not be for everyone: Its sound has been compared to that of a hyena.
Pennsylvania State University's Ray Wakeland demonstrates a simple version of the daxophone. The instrument may not be for everyone: Its sound has been compared to that of a hyena.
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In a scientist’s hands, even a blowtorch or a 50,000-year-old cave bear bone can make beautiful music – and teach people a thing or two at the same time. Let’s take a musical tour, from prehistory to the rocket age.

The tour begins with Jelle Atema, a Boston University biologist who also happens to be an accomplished flutist with an interest in the musical instruments of humanity’s past.

Naturally, Atema was intrigued by the discovery in 1995 of what may be the oldest musical instrument ever found – a bone flute, apparently carved from the femur of a cave bear and discovered in a cave in Slovenia where Neanderthals lived 43,000 years ago.

Atema already had made recordings of music played on a replica of a 4,000-year-old flute carved from a vulture bone and found in France. That flute was basically a recorder, the kind of flute you blow into – in contrast to a concert flute, which you blow over.

Another project involved a deer-bone flute thought to date back about 30,000 years, Atema said. Some experts believe the instrument is an early example of a “shepherd’s flute” without a mouthpiece, sometimes known as a kena. But Atema argues that the flute – like the 4,000-year-old model – originally had a carved mouthpiece and stopper, and was played like a recorder.

“In a split second, when I looked at it with a flutist’s eye … I saw right away that there was something wrong with the model,” Atema said Sunday during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The top of the flute, which would be the weakest part, showed signs of beveling around what once was perhaps a finger hole.

“It may have been broken in prehistoric times,” he speculated.

He admits, however, that he could be wrong: “If you want to attack me on any of the scientific points of this model, this is the place to attack, because this is the whole crux of the argument,” he said.

Atema said a recorder-type flute would have been easier to play, and he was able to coax trills and sliding tones from his carved deer-bone replica.

Atema’s piece de resistance is a brand-new replica of the so-called Neanderthal flute. Here again, he argues that the original flute was played like a recorder, even though there was no mouthpiece and stopper on the specimen when it was found.

This replica is Atema’s dearest prize: It’s made from a partially fossilized cave bear bone, dating back 50,000 to 100,000 years and shipped from Vienna just a couple of days before this week’s meeting. “It took me the better part of a whole day and night” to carve it into the likeness of the Slovenian model, he told MSNBC.

Were such flutes used merely as birdcalls? “It’s hard to believe that you would go to this extent to do that, because there are all sorts of other ways – easier, with less technology involved – to make those kinds of sounds,” he said.

Atema prefers to think that early hominids derived the same enjoyment from music that present day societies do: “If these people were amongst us, perhaps there would be a language barrier, but I’m sure there would not be much of a musical barrier.”

Ray Wakeland, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, takes a different approach to scientific musicmaking.

“I was looking for instruments that were unique acoustically,” he explained.

Not for him the simple washboard or the cigar-box ukelele: He’s more intrigued by the musical saw and the daxophone, a modernistic cousin created by German artist Hans Reichel. The “dax” is simply a carved piece of wood that’s anchored to a stand, then played with a violin bow. But the instrument creates an eerie vocal sound that may remind you of laughing hyenas.

Another acoustic oddity is the long-string instrument, invented by performance artist Ellen Fullman: It consists of a series of 100-foot-long harp-like strings hung like a clothesline about waist-high. Two or three players walk slowly along the length of the strings while lightly touching them with hands coated with rosin.

“Because of the great size of the long-string instrument, the players are actually inside it,” Wakeland said. “The playing is also a kind of dance which has been compared to Tai Chi.”

The instrument’s shimmering, sitar-like tones are created by longitudinal waves in the strings – in contrast to standard string instruments such as the violin or guitar, which generate sound through motions transverse to the length of the string.

Wakeland’s big finish involves “pyrophones” – instruments that literally allow the performer to play with fire. Perhaps the world’s best-known pyrophonist is French artist Michel Moglia, whose fire organ generates sound by shooting flames through more than 250 stainless-steel pipes.

Wakeland illustrates the principle with a blowtorch and a single glass tube with a wire screen inserted within: When the air inside the tube is heated and expands, it sets up a resonance in the glass tube that generates the musical tone.

“The sound wave modulates the rate of fuel delivery,” he said. Wakeland said he regularly demonstrates his musical pyrotechnics “to help interest people in acoustics.” His own musical inclination is what got him interested in techniques for using sound to pump heat. Such a technology – known as thermoacoustic refrigeration – can cool things down without the use of ozone-depleting refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbons, he said.

There’s actually quite a bit of research into the links between heat and air oscillations, he said.

“The reason it’s been studied is because people want to stop it,” he told MSNBC. “They want to stop it in furnaces and rocket engines.”

If a launch vehicle is poorly designed, he said, the oscillations generated during launch can literally tear the rocket apart. Wakeland, on the other hand, has a knack for turning flames into musical fireworks.