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Use of Physicality

All methods of sound reception require a level of physicality. However, the human hearing system is such an integral and natural part of one’s everyday life that it can be difficult to imagine the practice of hearing or listening as an especially physical process. Due to this, to create an explicitly physical experience from sound, one needs to work with ways to create an effect different to the inherent hearing system that is of notable physicality. In this research, I refer to physicality in sound as methods that fulfil and achieve this criteria. 


The most obvious method of achieving physicality is by interacting with the human physiology through sound resonance. The frequencies at the extreme ends of the human hearing spectrum can be felt as well as heard and if played at a high amplitude will resonate directly with the body causing embodiment. 

60 Hz - Sinewave
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15000 Hz - Sinewave
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An example of a low frequency 

An example of a high frequency 

Please note: a high quality sound system or headphones are needed to fully appreciate both frequencies. 

Ryoji Ikeda is a Japanese artist known for his sound and video art work which includes intense digital sonorities and wall-sized digital video displays. Much of Ikeda’s work involves resonating with the human body by utilising very high frequencies. A particular example of this is Headphonics [VPRO Version] :: +/- [VPRO Version] (Mort Aux Vaches 1999). The ‘ticking’ sound prevalent in the beginning of the work creates an explicit sensation that the audio is emerging from the listener’s head or throat area. This effect is also evoked in the piece Data.simplex from the 2006 album Dataplex (Raster Noton).  In both examples the sounds are located between 15 and 20 kilohertz. 

Ryoji Ikeda - Headphonics [VPRO Version] :: +/- [VPRO Version] (Mort Aux Vaches 1999)

'ticking sound'
Ryoji Ikeda
- Headphonics [VPRO Version] :: +/- [VPRO Version] (Mort Aux Vaches 1999)

Main sounds in the beginning of the piece 
Ryoji Ikeda - data.simplex (Raster Noton 2006)

An album Ikeda released in 2013 on the label Raster Noton called Supercodex involves twenty tracks in total with some as short as under two minutes. The track Supercodex 03 is 1:53 in duration. The track, much like the entire release, utilises fast abrasive cuts from intense high frequency to lower frequency sounds and rapid switches across the two stereo channels. This range of fast moving clicks, taps and ticks with short attacks and delays, add an tangible dimension to the sounds thereby furthering the physicality. A large majority of Ikeda’s sounds include a layer of sonic material at above 10 kilohertz. This layer is physically felt but is often masked with different frequency sounds so isn't explicitly heard. However, the piece Test Pattern #0110 (Raster Noton 2008), Ikeda presents more obvious unmasked high frequency material which is located at approximately 17 kilohertz. 

Main sounds in the beginning of the piece 
Ryoji Ikeda - data.simplex (Raster Noton 2006)

Main sounds in the beginning of the piece 
Ryoji Ikeda - Test Pattern #0110 (Raster Noton 2008)

The sensation Ikeda evokes, as well as perhaps being unnerving, delivers a sense of sound penetrating one’s body leading to immersion, physicality and a unity between sound and the body.

A second artist that explores feeling sound is Bernhard Leitner. A work by Leitner of particular note is Sound Chair (1975), in which a participant sits on a specially constructed chair with in-built speakers facing towards different locations on their body. Leitner talked about different parts of the body hearing and being receptacles to sound entering them (LaBelle 2006). He created the piece in such a way that different parts of the composition would play to different parts of the body. For example, low drones were played towards lower regions of the body and oscillated, moving to the upper torso (LaBelle 2006). Leitner also created a work called Sound Suit (1975), which, as apparent from the title, is a suit to be worn by the participant. The suit houses several speakers that point towards the body. Through this technique the sound is embodied or, in Leitner’s words, ‘a sound-space sculpture materialises, which accumulates and manifests itself in the body’ (Leitner n.d.).

07:04 - Leitner discusses his works which sound to the body

Gascia Ouzounian in an article for Contemporary Music Review in 2006 writes on uniting space, sound and embodiment stating:


‘Sound works designed for the body tend to bear a strong sense of ritual, conjoining physical spaces with their metaphysical complements. An encounter of real and imagined spaces, wrought in the body, produces alternating fields of vibration—at times beating positively to create an augmented awareness of self, spirit and surrounding; at other times clashing to reveal the limits of the body: that it is socially determined and determining; that it is an instrument of control; that, ultimately, it fails the user’ (Ouzounian 2006).

An obscure but functional way to achieve physicality is through resonating materials or architecture. This provides the audience with the knowledge of sound’s physicality, energy and power without the corporal experience. The Art of Failure Collective utilise the energy in low frequency sound in their project 2006- Resonate Architecture. The installations create their effect by playing low frequencies from loud speaks place inside of architectural landmarks - such as the Rostiger Nagel (Rusty Nail) in Brandenburg, Germany. This projection of low frequencies causes the buildings to resonate and so become musical bodies and sound instruments. The low frequency sound is being used to physically move (vibrate) another object and thus create more sound.

Art of Failure Resonant Architecture

Physicality can also be achieved through using otoacoustic emissions. The emissions not only create extra notes produced from the inner ear (discussed in the otoacoustic emissions theme), but also when used in excess can create a sensation of pressure on the listener’s ear and head. 


To using otoacoustic emissions in this way, I combine different sets of triggering frequencies in close proximity of hertz to create interference patterns or beat frequencies.










These frequencies are spread across different loud speakers creating a moving effect in space. The inference patterns do not strictly create a physical sensation to experience, but creates an sonic effect, which makes the listener more conscious of the physical effect and how sound moves in space. In many of my works, I layer a various sets of these frequency sets which causes a distortion effect and a lot of physical pressure on the head. It also creates a sensation of being immersed and surrounded by sound. The actual notes being produced by the cochlea are unrecognisable, which is unimportant as the compositional aim of my use of the phenomenon is to create the most physical effect possible in this unique way.  

Visualisation of an interference pattern


Ikeda, R. (2009). Dataplex [CD]. Germany: Raster Noton.

Ikeda, R. (1999). Mort Aux Vaches [CD]. Netherlands: Mort Aux Vaches.

Ikeda, R. (2013). Supercodex [CD]. Germany: Raster Noton. 

Ikeda, R. (2008). Test Patterns [CD]. Germany: Raster Noton.

LaBelle, B (2006). Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. Chapter 11. Continuum: New York

Lietner, B. (nd). Work List. Retrieved from

Ouzounian, G (2006) Embodied Sound: Aural Architectures and the Body. Contemporary Music Review, vol 25, no. 1-2, pp. 69-79.

Image Credit 

WaveInterference.gif by Adjwilley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons