Notes & Lines discusses the
intersection of math, science, and technology with performing and visual arts.
Topics include bizarre instruments, technically-minded musicians, and cross-pollination of science and art.
Perhaps more practical than the great white shark tracking app I downloaded a few years ago comes a new app that can identify bed bugs and offer suggestions for ridding them from your home in the event of an infestation.
Instead of immediately vacating your home once you have spotted the relentless critter, or setting fire to all your earthly possessions, a consult of sorts is now available at your fingertips: Thanks to a researcher from Ohio State University, a bed bug app is now available, informing bed bug novices about everything they need to know from identifying the nuisance bugs to preventing them from coming home with you after vacation.
Calling the app necessary amid a resurgence in bed bug infestations, Ohio State Entomologist Susan Jones developed the app to help people spot and thus get rid of the bugs.
"If you don't know anything about an organism, then you are sort of at the mercy of that creature," said Jones, who has been studying bed bugs for roughly 10 years.
Likely to ignite extreme panic, bed bugs, once identified, require a specific set of steps to eradicate according to Jones who recommends in most instances that a professional be sought, as most over-the-counter chemicals likely won’t take care of the problem. In extreme cases, people attempting to treat the problem on their own have inadvertently started fires, destroying all of their possessions and, in one instance, an entire structure.
The reason that the bugs tend to come back after such treatments is that they tend to rapidly reproduce, concealing themselves everywhere from floor to ceiling and moving around at night, generally when residents are sleeping.
Explaining that once the app has helped to identify the bugs, Jones believes that those suffering from infestation can appropriately combat the problem instead of relying on ineffective methods.
The app can be found by simply searching the unsettling combination of words “bed bug field guide.”
May is not the only band member with a technical or scientific degree: bassist John Deacon earned an honors degree in electronics before Queen hit it big, and drummer Roger Taylor holds a BSc in biology. It should then surprise no one that two of the band’s members essentially engineered their sound from the ground up, whether listeners knew it or not.
May built his first and main guitar – affectionately dubbed “Red Special” due to its dark red finish – in the early 1960s with his father. The two men fashioned the semi-hollow body out of softwood strips sandwiched between plywood, with oak inserts from an old table. The neck was shaped from wood from a discarded fireplace mantel, and the position markers on the fretboard were hand-shaped from mother-of-pearl buttons.
May playing Red Special in 2017. Image credit: Raph_PH / CC BY 2.0
The guitar’s electronics are even more unique than its materials. Electric guitarists nearly always select their instrument’s magnetic pickups – which convert a string’s vibration into an electrical signal – using a simple toggle switch, but May and his father assigned two on/off switches to each of Red Special’s three handmade pickups. The top set simply turns each pickup on and off. This is unique in itself, because traditional three-pickup guitars can only select two pickups adjacent to each other. May can use the on/off switches to select only the outer two pickups without the middle one, resulting in a unique sound.
The three pickups are also wired in series, rather than in parallel as is normal for electric guitars. Assigning each pickup its own switch and wiring them in series allowed May to double or triple Red Special’s output by selecting two or three pickups, respectively. On a typical guitar wired in parallel, selecting two pickups instead of one changes the tone but not the output level.
Red Special's unique wiring. Image credit: The Guitar Wiring Blog
The bottom set of switches reverses each pickup’s phase, allowing May to further refine the instrument’s tone. If more than one pickup is active and one has its phase reversed, the common signal between the two is canceled, giving a raspy, overtone-rich sound. Most three-pickup guitars in the 1960s were capable of five different pickup combinations at most, but between both sets of switches Red Special could produce as many as 15 unique sounds. According to some accounts, May used all of the guitar’s combinations when recording the song “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
May and his father also concocted a homebrew solution to a pervasive problem. Contemporary guitars often had a vibrato bar that, when bent during playing, would change the tension of the strings, resulting in a “twanged” sound. After a particularly heavy bend of the bar, the guitar’s strings would go out of tune until the guitarist had a chance to stop and retune.
Red Special's unique rolling bridge and tremolo, complete with valve springs.
May and his father mounted Red Special’s tremolo to a knife edge shaped into a V and added two valve springs from a motorbike to counter the guitar’s string tension. They fitted each string with its own saddle and a roller that allowed the string to return to its previous position after a bend, keeping it perfectly in tune. The drawback of this approach is that the rollers fall out of the saddle when their string breaks, leading May to bring a pocketful of extra rollers with him on stage during live performances.
May still uses the original 50+ year old Red Special on stage along with newer copies of the same instrument.
Less than a decade after Red Special’s birth, in the early days of Queen, bassist John Deacon used his electronics know-how to build a practice amp from a circuit board and some wire he spotted hanging out of a dumpster in London. The device could not have been simpler: Deacon intentionally built it to constantly play at full volume, and he liked the warm tone from its germanium transistors, so the amp lacked both typical volume and tone controls. It also had no switch to turn it on; Deacon simply wired it to a 9V PP-9 battery pack.
Deacon used the “Deacy amp” for private practice, but Brian May took an immediate interest in it when Deacon brought it to show the band. May plugged in Red Special and ran it through a treble booster, and found he loved its warm and malleable sound. Queen’s recording personnel loved it as well: its consistency of tone meant they could record layer upon layer of guitar tracks and make the final product sound like one instrument. The latter attribute was key to defining Queen’s hit-making sound, and May has used the Deacy amp on many recordings throughout the band’s long history.
Hearing a precisely layered track like “Good Company,” featuring a combination of guitar tones imitating a jazz band, one would never guess that its player was using an instrument built from discarded wood run through a stripped-down amp consisting of only a speaker and trashed electronics.
During my time in music school I quickly learned to pick out music therapy majors: long, frizzy, unwashed hair and guitar cases slung over an individual’s back were usually dead giveaways. Kidding aside, music therapy often has amazing effects when applied in clinical settings. I’ve personally witnessed musical participation stall dementia and increase brain function in elderly or incapacitated individuals, as well as improve conditions like depression and anxiety.
A few fairly recent studies examined a more unusual therapy: applying the ancient Australian didgeridoo to patients with breathing disorders. A traditional didgeridoo involves a termite-hollowed eucalyptus branch that has been de-barked, trimmed and fitted with a beeswax rim at the “mouthpiece” end, forming a simple trumpet. Traditional eucalyptus instruments often cost thousands of dollars, but modern composite didgeridoos can run as little as $30.
The didgeridoo player vibrates his or her lips within the mouthpiece to create a buzzing drone that evokes the Australian outback in the mind of most Westerners. Virtuoso players can vary their breathing and lip tension to mimic sounds of native Australian fauna.
Image credit: Feans / CC BY 2.0
A 2005 British Medical Journal article reported a Swiss study linking regular didgeridoo playing with improved outcomes in obstructive sleep apnea patients. Participants in the study’s intervention group were given four didgeridoo lessons over a four-month period and were instructed to practice the instrument for at least 20 minutes a day at least five days per week. A control group was placed on a waiting list during those four months. Following the study, the intervention group reported relatively significant improvements in daytime sleepiness and snoring.
A similar Australian study tested regular didgeridoo playing on asthmatic indigenous Australians and resulted in improved respiratory function in participating boys. Interestingly, female study participants were given singing lessons instead of didgeridoo lessons, possibly because Aboriginal tradition forbids women and girls from playing the didgeridoo. As a result, the study was less successful with girls, in terms of both participant retention and outcomes.
It might seem odd to specifically apply the didgeridoo to a clinical setting, but there’s a good reason. It’s the only wind instrument that requires circular breathing – exhaling through the mouth while breathing in through the nose – to play. Skilled didgeridoo players can sustain a drone for nearly an hour without stopping to catch their breath.
Circular breathing strengthens upper airways, explaining why it improves sleep apnea and asthma. Any player of a wind instrument can attempt circular breathing, but learning it is not for the faint of heart, and it sometimes takes a lifetime to master. If you’d like to try for yourself, try slowly spitting out water while inhaling through your nose. Once you’ve mastered that, try it with breathing instead.
Circular breathing can be done with or without a didgeridoo, but it seems like more fun with the instrument. Didgeridoos are also one of the best cat repellents on the market, or so I’ve heard. Felines be warned.
A colleague of mine recently heard from a friend that certain black holes make musical pitches—specifically, scientists have observed a black hole “emitting” a B-flat. As it turns out, he was correct: in 2003 Cambridge researcher Andy Fabian discovered that the satellite-borne Chandra X-ray Observatory spotted music-like ripples emanating from a black hole at the center of NGC 1275, a distant galaxy.
The researchers treated these gas ripples as musical sound waves and came up with some pretty wild observations. They calculated that the waves work out to “sound” a B-flat 57 octaves below middle C; for comparison, a standard piano range reaches to a little over 3 octaves below middle C. A keyboard purpose-built to play the black hole’s note would be over 45 feet wide. The wave had a frequency of about 10 million years, which is infinitely far below that perceived by human hearing. In September 2003 Nature magazine proclaimed it the “deepest-ever note.”
Here on Earth, the real deepest-sounding notes belong to the trusty pipe organ. Interestingly, organ builders have used two different methods for accomplishing low notes.
The simplest method is to build a really tall pipe, but this usually isn’t practical. The lowest organ pipe of any musical value would be around 64 feet tall, a dimension not possible in even the largest halls. There are only two true pipes of this size: one resides in the world’s largest pipe organ (and musical instrument) at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, and the other in the Sydney Town Hall Grand Organ in Australia. The sound from these pipes is described as more felt than heard: their pitch resides around 8 Hz, and human hearing sensitivity cuts off around 20 Hz. As the videos below prove, the Atlantic City organ sounds like a rumble, and the Sydney one sounds like, well, flatulence.
The second method relies on the psychoacoustic phenomenon of resultant tones. When pure sine waves are sounded together, they produce two additional sounds whose frequencies are the sum and difference of the two originals. For example, combining two tones at 32 Hz and 48 Hz result in two additional tones of 80 Hz and 16 Hz. Organ builders in the late 18th century were aware of this phenomenon and realized they could use it to produce very low sounds without building massive, costly pipes. So, to get the same 8 Hz as the Boardwalk organ, a builder could simply sound two pipes—one 32’ in length and one 21 1/3’—to generate the desired pitch. One might imagine this effect to be jarring, but the pitches are usually so low that a listener only perceives the low note and doesn’t hear the two combined pitches that produced it (a good audio example is here).
Organs also take the prize for the highest instruments, but that’s a topic for the next blog.
Growing up in the early ‘90s, my family still had a big cream-colored rotary phone stuck to our kitchen wall. At the time I didn’t realize that these phones were pretty outdated and that most other homes already had pushbutton phones. I still remember its sounds: the ratcheting of the dial returning after selecting a number, and the decidedly analog ringing bells.
A German initiative is concerned enough with these outmoded sounds that they’re archiving them. Conserve the Sound describes itself as “an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds.” The project is run by CHUNDERKSEN, a film production and communication design firm.
Conserve the Sound’s website organizes captured sounds by decade and object type, and they’re all freely available. The group captured sounds from typewriters, desk fans, stopwatches, a host of film cameras, kitchen gadgets, phones, the stamping of a library book, and even the filling of a milk can. (I’ll admit I’ve never been privy to this sound, but it’s pretty close to what I imagined.)
Preserving objects, as museums have been for thousands of years, makes a lot of sense to me, but I’ve never thought of preserving sound. On one hand it’s interesting to generations younger than mine, who’ve never heard a cassette tape jam or a Polaroid camera spit out a picture. Some of them seem to fall a little flat, though—I don’t find the clicking of buttons on a boombox or a running kitchen blender particularly worthy of preservation, for example. But who knows: maybe that’s because I grew up with them.