Shape of Sound - Ben Betts 14F

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

Visualizing sound with a laser and subwoofer
This subwoofer plays a major part in Ben's DIV III project in helping one visualize sound

My project is all about the multi-sensory; the use of multiple senses to experience vibrations and harmony. I then take that in any direction with ears, with a bodies as listening devices. You can feel the vibrations. How do we experience harmony visually? I centered on those three senses.

I wanted to teach people to see more than hear. I work at Northstar where I teach homeschool kids in the valley. I teach them music which has evolved into teaching them other subjects such as sound and physics. It’s helped me, too. It excites them. I really use that model to inspire the most. I used storytelling to tell people why I spent so long on this project. I just wanted people to learn something and experience something. I was very intent in doing something more than just an audible experience.

I play piano. I try to play all the instruments. I recorded all the instruments in my album. Anything I want to put int there I learned how to play the instrument. I want to do it all, but I also like collaborating. I have a band called auto.flower I play in.

Discovery of shape of sounds:

About a year ago I got a tuning fork. I got obsessed with having this all the time. It’s a standard fork. I don’t have perfect pitch. But I’ve learned to learn the tones. When I struck the fork on my knee, I’ve learned to hear the key of A. There has to be more going on in sound than what we just hear in our ears. I just went into exploring that via our eardrums. There is a spectrum of sound and our eardrums allows us to see small window of it. The window we see is from 40 hertz to 21k hertz. There is incredible sound below and above it. We ignore it must of the time. Pop music ignores it. Electronic Dance Music you can feel the bass. Animals use ultrasonic frequencies to communicate and navigate. That’s a rabbit hole as far as that goes.

The tuning fork is not only music but a physical vibration I can hold in my hand. I thought my original DIV III project was going to be investing tree frequencies. I went into the Hampshire woods with listing devices and laser interferometer which inspired me. It is a device that shoots a beam at a vibrating object. However the object vibrates, it creates a doppler shift in the laser’s periodic frequency that can be analyzed to determine the vibrational pattern of the vibrating object.

I realized it was too hard to acquire equipment to listen to trees. But it got me thinking about experiencing to vibrations and resonance as a whole. And I slowly fell into this project about vibration. I was into high school science demonstrations that show how energy moves through elastic material like air or water. I just kept experimenting with resonance. I tried to balance science and music. I was thinking about our perception of sound being relative to our perception of time. Time dilation: imagine our ability to increase and decrease our interpretation of time would shift the frequency spectrum that we experience. I stopped at music invention of time dilation for my project.

The visual aspect of my div is based on reflecting a laser off a vibrating object. If the vibrations are repeating it will move the laser in a repeating shape at a rate that makes it seem to be a shape moving in slow motion. Harmony of multiple tones creates even more interesting designs. The designs are best when pairing tones with simple harmonic ratios. A major third or perfect fifth for example look like how you might imagine they would sound. More dissonant harmony is more chaotic and unpredictable but equally as impressive. I also investigate vibrations we feel but can hear or see existing in the infrasonic range. Using a large subwoofer, frequencies below our range of hearing can be pushed into the air and objects around us. Like an earthquake, we feel these vibrations with our bodies rather than our ears. Different parts of the body resonate in a variety of ways.

Watch Ben talk in depth about what role this subwoofer and laser played in his project.


I was born in Florida. Then I moved to Boothbay, Maine when I was three which is my home. Boothbay’s great. It’s small town. Being a musician in a high school where there are only 300 kids lets you stand out with your talent. They don’t have the band in the highs school any more. When I was 15 I got my first gig playing steel drums at the Rocktide Inn in Boothbay Harbor for every year until last year when they changed owners. That’s okay because that was my first time as a pro musician and getting paid on a 6 day week basis. When I first talked to them I knew how to play only drums, but I told them I could play steel drums because I wanted the job. And I said, “give me a week” and I got steal drums the next day. Then I spent the next week learning steel drums which let me pretend how to play steel drums. And they loved it.

It felt like a gateway into professional music. It got me thinking at a young age what I enjoy or what the audience enjoys. When I would start original compositions people enjoyed it, but they wanted to year Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett. It pushed me to be a composer early. How can I say something I feel and incorporates influences from pop music people like? How can I make my music something people want to listen to while I can also express myself?

Discovering Hampshire:

I saw Hampshire in a top 40 alternatives schools list. It was part of the college search . [My family] and I visited Hampshire on our way to Skidmore College in New York. And I got waitlisted there, so I visited Hampshire to check it out. I came on Columbus Day and no one was here and I thought it was boring and left not interested. For someone reason I picked Hampshire because they accepted me. And I did feel like I chose it based on their missions to allow students be self driven and be creative in a way other schools didn’t value or model; that is what I wanted. I really wanted Berklee College of Music, but I realized during my audition there how competitive it was. As a musician , I viewed myself as not competitive. I felt at Berklee you have to be the best there. That’s what Hampshire isn’t about. You don’t have to be the typical musician. You can be something else that Berklee wouldn’t allow. You can incorporate multimedia. It was a struggle my first and second year. I thought I was going to leave the first year. Coming out of Boothbay I finally hit I place where I realize I actually learned something and enjoy it. This hunger for knowledge came out of nowhere. This is what curiosity feels like. It’s huge as a Maine kid coming out of Boothbay. The ability to learn is a human super power. I’ve been trying to be aware about that. I feel very conscious about how I learn now. That’s helped me as a composer. I can bridge a gap of what’s in my head and what’s outside. Creating music is the inverse of learning. It’s teaching in a way. It’s the expelling of knowledge just as there is the intake of knowledge.

What I hear from people at Berklee is that they push you to master a standard of method and thinking. I think it just teaches how to be a really good musician. Hampshire teaches you to be a musician in a different way. I don’t play my scales as fast a a Berklee student. And at Hampshire, it’s not about that. As a musician I study the sound spectrum of both audible and inaudible frequencies and figure out how to use these tools as my instrument.

After Hampshire:

I want to work in a recording studio. I love the recording process and process of music. And I want to be a part of the music industry in an experimental and commercial level. Depending on where I go, I want to work in Maine with my family. We worked really well together as far as my dad being a painter, my mom being an engineer, and my brother a sculptor. Between the four of us we are a team that functions really well. We collaborate and together we pull together a great show. We’ve always done open mics together. I plan to do that in a more professional level. I probably will keep teaching. I love working with alternatives schools like North Star. It’s all of the things I‘ve been doing at hamp and I want to keep doing it all. Everything in music is all I want to do.

Hear When I get on a Plane from Ben's newest album Reveling available on iTunes.

Hampward bound students:

The most helpful thing to come to Hampshire with is curiosity and understand that the need to learn something is something that is powerful. If you follow that gut feeling, it will pull you to that place you need to be. Even if you don’t know where that is, you’re curiosity is your compass. I’m fully confident in finding your place in the world, it’s not how you prepare yourself. If you just keep climbing that ladder, it’ll take you way above where you expect it to be.

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