Listening to the Music of Earth: VLF Waves

The Earth generates its own music. It’s always out there, but you gotta know how to listen.  This is from Nautilus:

Stephen McGreevy looked nervously at the sky. Outside his camper van in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, angry black clouds gathered on the horizon as 30-mile-per-hour winds whipped across the flat expanse. At his feet, an array of copper wire—hundreds of feet of it—writhed like snakes. As rain beat against the roof, McGreevy hastily gathered the cable, shoved it in the van among a tangle of recording equipment, and hit the road. He was headed for Oregon, where he planned to have the array set up again before dawn in hopes of capturing strange sounds from the sky.

The noises he was hunting were first discovered in the early days of radio. Soldiers on field telephones at the front lines of World War I would say that, some days, you could really hear the grenades fly—the staccato pops and falling whistles coming through the wire sounded like enemy fire. Their true source, however, was long an object of conjecture. Newspapers, for instance, touted them as extraterrestrial voices.

Today researchers understand these sounds to be the product of very low frequency (VLF) waves—radio frequencies with wavelengths from 10 to 100 kilometers. They are generated by natural phenomena—mostly thunderstorms, but also volcanoes and tornadoes. During a thunderstorm, for instance, lightning emits electromagnetic waves that are distinct from the clap of thunder; they travel not at the speed of sound, but at the speed of light. The effect is a chorus of tones:

Static “sferics”

Sharp “tweeks”

and rare, otherwordly “whistlers.”

This is cool secret stuff. Keep going.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Listening to the Music of Earth: VLF Waves

  • August 18, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    This is cool stuff for sure. Related:

    Jack Dangers, otherwise known as Meat Beat Manifesto, did a lot of field recordings of natural sounds and integrated them into his music. On his most popular album “Actual Sounds and Voices” (the one with “Prime Audio Soup” on it, which was featured in The Matrix) he even has an interlude called “The Tweek” that uses an old sample describing that phenomenon, along with ‘whistlers’ and others. Also, in the album sleeve there’s a picture of him with a parabolic microphone taking outdoor recordings.

    If you’ve never listened to it, it’s not all experimental stuff of course; like Prime Audio Soup, there are a lot of other great very catchy and very bass-heavy songs on there, especially for its time. Dangers is credited with being very influential on many types of music, and you could likely extend that to the current ‘bass music’ genre as well. Plus you get a bit of an education on VLF phenomena!


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