Skip to main content

Mind-bending MIT project uses lasers to generate music from spiderwebs

Spiders may typically have eight eyes, but very few have good eyesight. Instead, they rely on vibrations to navigate and seek out their prey. That’s, in essence, what a spiderweb is: A giant, enormously complicated crisscross of tripwires that can tell a spider exactly when — and where — some delicious bit of food has landed on its web.

As humans, we’re not exactly privy to what that experience would feel like. But Markus Buehler, a Professor of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has come up with an intriguing way of simulating it — and it involves laser scanning, virtual reality, and the medium of music.

Spider With Prey
Markus J Buehler/MIT

“We have given the silent spiderweb, especially often-overlooked cobwebs, a voice, and shed light on their innate intricate structural complexity,” Buehler told Digital Trends. “[We] made it audible by developing an interactive musical instrument that lets us explore sonically how the spiderweb sounds like as it is being built.”

According to this creation, being on a spiderweb sounds a whole lot like an orchestra of wind chimes, scored by John Carpenter. No wonder spiders perpetually seem on edge!

A world of vibrations

Whether it’s Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” quarter of string concertos or Mozart’s use of the Fibonacci Sequence, plenty of musicians have been inspired by nature over the years. But none have turned the sounds of the natural world into music with quite the scientific fidelity of Buehler’s creation. In order to create his biofidelic soundscape, Buehler and fellow researchers used a laser scanner to record details of every line of webbing in a spiderweb. Not content with scanning the regular boring webs of any old spider, they focused their efforts on the extremely complex web of the Cyrtophora citricola, also called the tropical tent-web spider.

Using the sheet laser scanner, they took measurements of these webs as a series of images, which they then used an algorithm to reassemble as a three-dimensional model on computer, containing the exact location of each filament and connection point of the web. The researchers then calculated the “vibrational patterns” for each of the strings on the web, basing this on the physics study of string vibrations to understand resonance. This was a complex job; not just because of the massive number of strands, but because each strand has a different vibrational frequency according to its size and elasticity. Next, they aggregated these to reflect the sonic qualities across the entire web.

Thanks to the 3D model, the researchers (or anyone who dons the necessary headset) are able to dip into VR to explore different sections of the web, giving the user a sense of what the audioscape might sound like in each different area. The results are a weird blend of the artistic and the scientific — and Buehler wouldn’t have it any other way.

Spider web sonification: Less busy music, sonification of the porous web along z-axis

“[I’m interested in] pushing the way we create sound and music, by looking to natural phenomena to solicit vibrational patterns for new types of instruments rather than relying on the tradition of ‘harmonic’ tuning like equal temperament,” he said. “We have [so far] done this for proteins and folding, cracks and fractures in materials, and also for spiderwebs. In each case, [we’re] seeking to assess the innate vibrational patterns of these living materials to work out new ways to conceptualize musical structures.”

Spider music

Buehler said that the work is “driven by my long interest to push the boundary of how and why we create music — to use the universality of vibrations in nature as a direct compositional tool.” He noted that: “As a composer of experimental and classical and electronic music, my artistic work explores the creation of new forms of musical expression — such as those derived from biological materials and living systems — as a means to better understand the underlying science and mathematics.”

It’s not just about creating unusual electronic music, though. Buehler noted that this work can be useful for students of the natural world who can better understand the geometries behind prey catching in the spider kingdom. It could also be used as a novel way to help design new materials, by applying this same process to help design by sound. “We find that opening up the brain to process more than just the raw data, but using images and sound as creative means, can be powerful in understanding biological methods — and to be creative as an engineer when it comes to out-of-the-box ideas,” he said.

For now, though, it’s enough that someone created a biofidelic spider theme. No, it probably won’t show up in Marvel’s next Spider-Man movie, and it doesn’t have the same relaxing qualities as whale song, but it’s pretty darn neat all the same. Even if it makes the sight of a spider perched on a web, waiting for flies, look a whole lot less peaceful.

Alongside Buehler, other people who contributed to the project included Ian Hattwick, Isabelle Su, Christine Southworth, Evan Ziporyn, and Tomas Saraceno.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
Get this HP 17-inch laptop for $300 instead of the usual $660
The HP 17-inch laptop against a white background.

Seventeen-inch laptops toe the line between portability and size, making them more expensive than your average laptop. Some of the best 17-inch laptops can easily cost you thousands of dollars. Luckily, there HP has come up with a very budget-friendly solution in the form of the HP laptop 17z, and while it's not one of the best laptops on the market, it is an excellent budget-oriented choice for a 17-inch laptop. Even better, HP currently discounts it down to $300 from the usual $560 price tag, which is a significant $260 off.

Why you should buy the HP Laptop 17z
As the name implies, the HP Laptop 17z has a large 17.3-inch screen running a 1920 x 1080 resolution and can hit a peak brightness of 250nits, which isn't a lot, but it's good enough for a well-lit room, especially with its anti-glare coating. You could potentially upgrade to a touch version of the screen for $30, but since it would knock the resolution down to 1600 x 900, it's not worth it, especially with a larger 17.3-inch screen. What will be worth the upgrade is taking the networking option from the Wi-Fi5 and Bluetooth 4.2 standard up to the Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 standard for an extra $20, which will make sure your laptop has a strong connection for streaming or doing online meetings and will be future-proof for at least the next 5-6 years.

Read more
Get a lifetime of 1TB cloud storage for $160
Using Koofr cloud storage on a phone.

One thing about most of the best cloud storage services that you're sure not to like is having to pay for them. Again and again, month after month, they ask for money to continue holding your files. It makes sense, in a way, as their servers take constant real estate and electricity to maintain. Now, though, you can get a lifetime of terabyte cloud storage on Koofr for just $160. The usual price would be $810, so this saves you $650 in total. And, naturally, Koofr's cloud storage has special features that you'll want to know about, too. So, go ahead and tap the button below to find the deal — it'll only be going on for a limited amount of time — and continue reading to see why we like this deal and what makes Koofr special.

Why you should buy cloud storage on Koofr
While Koofr is an advanced cloud storage system, with advanced file management and accessibility from nearly all of your devices, there are two primary reasons to purchase this deal: Security and value.

Read more
The 5 best things you can do with Copilot Pro right now
Microsoft Copilot Pro.

Copilot Pro is Microsoft’s AI subscription service that costs $20 per month for individuals and is integrated into the brand’s Microsoft 365 suite. The paid service offers unique features to Microsoft users, provides faster and more consistent AI performance with priority access to the GPT-4 and GPT-4 Turbo large language models (LLM) during peak times, and also brings the AI technology to the brand’s most popular PC applications -- and that's where things get really interesting.

Here are some of the best features on Copilot Pro and how they work.
Create custom GPTs

Read more