Ocean waves, as loud and mighty as they seem, can sometimes be incredibly difficult to hear above the crash of the surf or the sound of your own voice. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t music to be heard—all you need to do is look at data! The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been collecting information about the ocean for decades using sonar buoys that send information about water temperature, wave height, and even pressure (among other things) to computers onshore. The Sound of the Sea: How NASA Scientists Turned Ocean Waves into Music

How did this happen?

On a balmy June morning in 2011, Stephen Barcelo sat down at his keyboard, looked out over his balcony towards Long Beach, and started playing. It was a moment he’d been hoping for; one that had been years in the making. For several minutes, he forgot about deadlines and grant proposals and let himself drift as he listened to—and played along with—the sounds of waves crashing against shore. Back then, he didn’t know it would take six more years for him to finally hear what he imagined that day on his balcony.

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The Sound of the Sea: How NASA Scientists Turned Ocean Waves into Music

Why does this sound like music?

The short answer is that it’s a wave phenomenon called frequency modulation. The longer answer is a bit more complicated, but more fun. Underwater waves behave differently than their counterparts on land. When sound travels through water, it changes in amplitude—the term for its volume or loudness—as it passes through layers of different water densities, which causes refraction. In order to understand refraction, think about what happens when you look at an object partially submerged in water; depending on where your eyes are positioned relative to that object and how deep it is, you see different parts of it (the part above the surface will be blurry while you can see deeper portions clearly). Refraction works exactly like that underwater.

Where was it recorded?

The sounds were captured off Guadalupe Island, Mexico. This island is located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Baja California, Mexico and 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Cedros Island, a Mexican Pacific island. Guadalupe is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) long by 15 miles (24 kilometers) wide at its widest point.

The Sound of the Sea: How NASA Scientists Turned Ocean Waves into Music
The Sound of the Sea: How NASA Scientists Turned Ocean Waves into Music

It has several bays and inlets that attract many big game fish such as sailfish, mahi-mahi and yellowfin tuna. The surf zone around Guadalupe’s rocky shores has earned it a reputation as one of Earth’s best spots for observing great white sharks in their natural habitat.

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How do they turn sounds into songs?

Most sounds are made when something vibrates. If you have ever knocked on a table or plucked a guitar string, you’ve created sound waves; it’s just that our ears aren’t sensitive enough to hear them. Over time, scientists began to measure these invisible waves with instruments called seismographs. When an earthquake hits, we can tell how big it is by measuring its seismic waves–but we couldn’t actually hear these huge phenomena until now.

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The Splashes, Inlet, Mysterious Oceans Covered by Clouds and Nacreous Clouds, Red Tide , Biology Rhythm, and Vibrations from Nature. These songs were created using Nasa’s scientific data in waves recorded all over our beautiful planet. The sounds range from windy beaches to deep underwater canyons and everything in between. Listen to music created with waves that have travelled all around our world!

The Sound of the Sea: How NASA Scientists Turned Ocean Waves into Music
The Sound of the Sea: How NASA Scientists Turned Ocean Waves into Music

Some fun facts about sound

This audio is produced from very small waveforms using a spectrogram technique. The primary purpose for performing a spectrogram analysis is to determine whether or not a waveform contains any information. Spectrograms are used in numerous applications, including sonar and radar systems for detecting targets such as aircraft and ships. An everyday example would be visually analyzing an image in order to determine if it contains hidden speech or other types of subliminal data. Sonar waves (for detection) generally have frequency content from about 500 Hz up to 10 kHz, although underwater systems tend to work best at frequencies around 1-4 kHz.

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One last thing, an audio waveform for you to listen to.

Here is a real sound file of ocean waves to listen to. It’s not music, but it’s still pretty cool! Click here to download or play from your browser.

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