Make music out of spider webs

Spiders are builders who skillfully weave strands of silk into intricate 3D webs that serve as the spider's home and hunting ground. If humans could step into the world of the spider, they could learn about web construction, arachnid behavior, and more. Today scientists report that they translated the structure of a web into music, which could have applications ranging from better 3D printers to cross-species communication to otherworldly musical compositions.

Cross-sectional images (shown in different colors) of a spider web were combined into this 3D image and translated into music.
Photo credit: Isabelle Su and Markus Buehler

"The spider lives in an environment with vibrating strings," says Markus Bühler, PhD, the main researcher of the project presenting the work. "They don't see very well and feel their world through vibrations with different frequencies." Such vibrations occur, for example, when the spider stretches a strand of silk during construction or when the wind or a trapped fly moves the web. The researchers will present their results at the American Chemical Society (ACS) spring meeting. The meeting features nearly 9,000 presentations on a wide variety of scientific topics.

Bühler, who has been interested in music for a long time, wondered if he could extract rhythms and melodies of non-human origin from natural materials such as spider webs. "The webs could be a new source of musical inspiration that is very different from the normal human experience," he says. By experiencing a web through hearing and seeing, Bühler and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), together with employee Tomás Saraceno from the Tomás Saraceno studio, hoped to gain new insights into 3D architecture and the structure of networks.

With these goals in mind, the researchers scanned a natural spider web with a laser to capture 2D cross sections and then used computer algorithms to reconstruct the web's 3D network. The team assigned different sound frequencies to the strands of the web and created “notes” that they combined in patterns based on the 3D structure of the web to create melodies. The researchers then created a harp-like instrument and played spider web music in several live performances around the world.

The team also created a virtual reality setup that allows users to “step” into the web visually and acoustically. “The virtual reality environment is really fascinating because your ears recognize structural features that you might see but not immediately,” says Bühler. "When you hear and see it at the same time, you can really understand the environment the spider lives in."

To gain insight into how spiders build webs, the researchers scanned a web during the building process and converted each stage into music with different sounds. “The sounds of our harp-like instrument change during the process and reflect the way the spider builds the web,” says Bühler. "In this way we can examine the chronological sequence of how the web is built up in an audible form." This step-by-step knowledge of how a spider builds a web could help create 3D printers that mimic the spider and build complex microelectronics. "The way the spider 'prints' the web is remarkable because it does not use a substrate, as is often required in current 3D printing methods," he says.

In other experiments, the researchers looked at how the sound of a network changes when it is subjected to various mechanical forces, e.g. B. elongation. “In the virtual reality environment, we can start pulling the web apart and when we do that the tension on the strings and the sound they make change. At some point the strands break and they make a cracking noise, ”says Bühler.

The team is also interested in learning how to communicate with spiders in their own language. They recorded web vibrations generated when spiders engaged in various activities, e.g. B. build a web, communicate with other spiders or send advertising signals. Although the frequencies sounded similar to the human ear, a machine learning algorithm correctly classified the sounds into different activities. "Now we're trying to generate synthetic signals so that we can basically speak the language of the spider," says Bühler. “If we subject them to certain rhythmic or vibrational patterns, can we influence what they do and can we begin to communicate with them? These are really exciting ideas. "


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