Researchers Turn Spider Webs Into Music

The eerie compositions offer humans an approximation of how spiders experience their surroundings through vibrations

3D scan of spider web
Researchers took cross sectional scans of a spider web with a laser to make this 3D image of its structure that they eventually translated into music. Isabelle Su and Markus Buehler

Researchers have transformed spider webs into silk-stringed instruments to create peculiar arachnid music that offers a unique window into their eight-legged world, reports Ian Morse for the New Scientist.

“The spider lives in an environment of vibrating strings,” explains Markus Buehler, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who presented the new research at a virtual meeting of the American Chemical Society, in a statement. “They don’t see very well, so they sense their world through vibrations, which have different frequencies.”

For a spider, the various frequencies of different vibrations are as perceptible as colors or notes on a piano. Some spiders even use vibrations to communicate with each other. In the context of a web, strands of silk vibrate at one frequency or another depending on their length and tension, not unlike the strings of a guitar.

“When you see the structure of a spider web, it reminds you somewhat of a harp or a stringed instrument. So, the question came up, ‘What if you were to think about modeling these strings as vibrating objects?’” Buehler tells Maddie Bender for Vice. “What we're trying to do is expand how we generate sound in music and how we compose music.”

To turn the vibrations traveling through a spider’s web into sounds, the researchers used lasers to model the webs of tropical tent-web spiders (Cyrtophora citricola) in 3-D. Once they had the 3-D web model, the researchers calculated each thread’s frequency by taking properties such as length and elasticity into account, according to New Scientist. The team then shifted those frequencies into the range of sounds audible to the human ear and opted to give them a tone similar to a harp.

With “notes” assigned to each strand of the spider web, the researchers created a virtual reality setup that allows users to explore and “play” the web like an instrument by moving through its structure in 3-D and strumming its strands.

“Spiders are silent, and the web itself is also something you don’t associate with sound,” Buehler tells Isaac Schultz of Gizmodo. “We’re trying to give the spider a voice… so that we can perhaps one day have a little chit chat with a spider, and maybe play a song together and jam together.”