Infrasonic – haunted music?



…the universe is probably full of music that we cannot perceive”Sir John Lubbock, considering the limits of the audible spectrum, 1879


An early acoustic test at NPL

Infrasonic (aka Soundless Music) was a controlled psychological experiment, in the form of two back-to-back concerts. These concerts were highly unusual because some of the music was laced with infrasound (i.e.extreme bass sound, below 20Hz in frequency).

Infrasound is of interest as it’s a sound so deep, it’s on the cusp of perception – it’s a sensation that you feel as much as you hear. It’s rbeen implicated in some eerie psychological effects, been found at sights of ostensible hauntings and it laces sacred organ music in cathedrals around the UK (more below).

This concert/experiment has attracted worldwide media interest. It’s also inspired many other artists and cognitive scientists to delve into the murky world of extreme bass sound.

Looking for more info?

10-15 June 2018 – this week I’m migrating the infrasound project notes, along with some other old pages, to this new website. Do try again later!

This experiment was put together in 2003 with a small but very welcome grant from the SciArt Consortium. Since then, I’ve been endeavouring to keep these pages live while I’ve migrated through many other websites. I conducted this collaboration as an independent scholar. I endeavour to answer as many enquiries about infrasound when I can – but please bear with me if I can’t answer extensive enquiries or respond straight away.

Our results were tentative and our statement about the project were based on an analysis of the psychological experiment designed by Prof. Richard Wiseman and analysed by Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe.

I do have many plans to take this work futher, both as an artist and as an experimenter. I’m just looking for the window of time – and the funding – to do so. In the meantime, some of my own learning from this experiment has been deployed in my music for theatre at the National Theatre, Manchester International Festival and beyond.

Original music

She Goes Back Underwater (2003). This is very early work and my style has developed considerably since 2003, but here’s the piece I created for the experiment. This version is for electronics only. There is another version for piano and electronics.

NB There is no infrasound in this recording! We had to build an infrasonic generator to generate infrasonic notes during our concert. There are some very low frequencies in this composition (which I included to mask any infrasound). But they’re not quite in the infrasonic region. Even if I had included infrasonic notes in this piece, it’s unlikely they would survive the mp3 compression process and any filtering by your computer soundcard, amps and loudspeakers (unless you have a very high-spec set-up – in which case, sorry to disappoint!).

Setting up the experiment

To delve into the curious world of infrasound, I put together a team of experimental psychologists (Wiseman et al), acoustic consultants from the National Physical Laboratory and fellow musicians, including the pianist (Genia) who would perform live on the night. Our aim was explore some tantalising claims about infrasound and put them under scientific scrutiny. Of particular interest were its reputed emotional effects. Infrasound is used in sacred music, for instance during cathedral organ recitals, and there is debate about why it’s used. Some people say it adds a sense of awe to the music – it puts a shiver down your spine. Others say that giant infrasonic organ pipes are nothing more than room dressing. Stranger still, infrasound has also been detected at some ostensibly haunted sites (see Vic Tandy, 1998) where it may also be making people feel very uneasy.

According to Tandy, even when infrasound comes from a mundane source, such as a faulty ceiling fan, it can give people such strange sensations, it might lead them to think they’ve been haunted. This was enough information to encourage us all to test the effect of infrasound in a live musical performance.

Setting up a dry-run of the experiment. This open rehearsal took place at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Photo: Dan Simmons, NPL
Setting up a dry-run of the experiment. This open rehearsal took place at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Photo: Dan Simmons, NPL