Music Science
Play the Rings of a Tree Trunk Like a Record

What would the trunk of a tree sound like if a cross section of it were played like an LP? With his creation Years, Bartholomäus Traubeck attempts to answer that question by using a turntable, PlayStation Eye Camera, a stepper motor to control the arm, and computer running Ableton Live. As you’ll hear in the video above, the rings of the tree trunk, as interpreted by this piece, create an eerie and ominous piano track that sounds like it was taken from psychological horror film. Who knew trees were so emo? [via Creative Applications]

135 thoughts on “Play the Rings of a Tree Trunk Like a Record

  1. Deceptive article. The rings are not creating an “eerie ominous piano track”. At most, Bartholomäus Traubeck is creating a piano sounding track using software to interpret raw noise. The noise itself does not naturally sound like a piano.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I didn’t mean for the text to be how you’ve interpreted it (as I know the rings don’t sound like a piano). I’ll try rewording it to make it more clear. Thanks again.

      1. Hy Matt can you make some with nylon string/classical guitar sound i thank it grate to hear what Mother Nature has to say about music.and it was beautiful.Rick

        1. yo i made up the phrase nig nog! touche sir.. only shows that there is another genius like me in the world :D

    2. Your failure to understand something obvious does not make this article deceptive. It’s fairly common knowledge that trees do not sound like pianos. I guess you were sick the day they taught that one, huh.

      1. Trees do eventually sound like pianos, after you cut them down and make them into pianos! They also sound like guitars, basses and some woodwind instruments.

        I understand how all this stuff works, so I want to comment that the slice of tree trunk is not really doing anything here but triggering preset chords in Ableton Live. Its only the light and dark areas, like the knot, that are doing anything. The chords could have been changed to something less dramatic sounding, or to anything at all.

        So while this is kind of interesting, there is no real data coming from the tree and being turned into notes. You can do this with images of things, by interpreting the pixel data, but that’s not what’s being done here.

        By the same token you can place a round photograph of anything on that turntable and get almost the exact same affect.

        So I have to agree that it’s kind of a gimmick. The fact that it’s being presented as performance art makes it even more so.

          1. You guys really made my day … the First David was so serious and informative, in contrary the second David broke all the ambiance into something silly but funny…

    3. Thanks, Captain Obvious. I’ll bet you’re the smartest guy in your trailer park.
      Go back to your “Dukes of Hazzard” re-runs.

    4. i have to agree with critical – the attached video is NOT of a tree trunk being ‘played like a record’ because the mechanics of a record are the minute variations in the grooves cause DIRECT vibrations in the air (ie sound)

      this video is of a PC interpreting non-random source of data and has obviously been heavily tweaked to sound acceptable to westerm music trained ears

      frankly, i’m dissapointed – i wanted to hear a tree trunk with as little intermediary as possible

      1. But that would be bizarre, static-y, white noise that resembles nothing more than sand-paper dragging on gravel.

      2. then perhaps you should try doing your own piece rather than projecting your undeveloped musings onto someone eles’s work. it wouldn’t then be an original idea, of course, but that would be in keeping with your rather empty comment on the piece itself.

      3. I agree with you. This is lame. If there were any decipherable information in the tree that could be converted into sound, it sure would not sound like that. If anything, that absolute only correlation between what we hear and the tree is the rhythm, considering everything else is completely altered

    5. on top of that, on a musical note, everything on this is in the tune of something, if they really matched notes up with what the tree said, it would be like a kid hitting as many buttons as he could at the same time, this is set to some kind of note-set. at that rate, they might as well have faked the whole thing

    6. so? at least it sounds cool, regardless of what is actually happening. and since you know what’s happening, what would it sound like if it were actually playing like an lp?

    1. hehehehehe the ents will be after revenge! first you’ve killed their family now you’re playing with the corpse! hehehe :D :D

  2. Fun! Also – I suspect that they are using not just Ableton Live, but Cycling 74’s Max (an object-oriented audio/video/MIDI language which integrates directly with Live) to translate the video signal to MIDI and play the sounds. Max is a great tool, and this looks like a brilliant use.

  3. Really cool
    How does it decide what notes to play?
    is it where the lines are and how thick they are?
    Or does it just detect color variation?

    either way very cool.

  4. I know that thicker tree rings tell us that the tree grew more that year as opposed to thinner rings where there was slower growth. Soo when I’m hearing more activity in this “song”, can I assume that it is playing a thicker ring? Or are the increased noises more of a reflection of when the lines are reallyclosetogether? Either way, it’s super cool to hear the story of the tree’s life.

    1. What a great interpretation – I just thought “cool, control midi with some unusual media” but you’ve made a great point. I’m still learning to appreciate “art” in all it’s forms, but to think about how the tree grew to create the different rings (and thus the different sounds) creates quite a different listening experience!

    1. i’m tired of grumpy ass fools who feel compelled to shit on something many people happen to find novelty in and appreciate. i hope your comment made you feel better about your miserable self, because really, if shitting on the creative works of others and trivializing it to the point of douchbaggery is what gets you off, you my sad friend are a pathetic loser that needs to get laid or rip a bongload. something.

      1. I like the way that what started as a project that someone decided they would share with the world for those who would appreciate it, something with a completely good intention the expression of self through art has become a huge bitch fest of people on both sides. It really does say something about the world, if you didn’t like it oh well move on, your life has in no way been altered. If you listened and fell in love with a new beautiful peace of art congrats but don’t gratify those who seek attention by giving it to them. I mean really you took art, whether you enjoyed it or not, and turned it into a distorted babbling of hate. I’m 18 and even I can see how fucked up that is. I don’t know how the software works I don’t know if the story is BS or not but I could care less ill base the beauty from the content and let the music speak for itself.

        1. Very nicely stated J. The fact that you’re 18 gives me some hope in what I otherwise deem a hopeless generation. Unfortunately, the amazing technologies that have developed in the past twenty years have created a kind of democratization of opinion that shows how oppressive free speech can be, and engenders the kind of rampant narcissicism that thrives in tweets and blogs and fecesbook. Oh yeah, I meant facebook, but it’s all the same to these kids who don’t know how to spell, no nothing about art or life, and yet deem their opinions worth sharing. Sorry folks, but there is a difference between opinion and criticism. Everyone has an opinion, and opinions are of equal value, that value being nada.

    2. “The way the data in interpolated is programmed and controlled by a human. It’s just a gimmick.”

      I call troll, just based on how little sense this criticism makes.

    3. The fact that you called it a gimmick just proves how invalid your comment was. A gimmicks intent is to trick or deceive you into taking something that’s offered with little promise of return. Whatever this person provided, they delivered. They wanted to hear what a tree trunk sounded like as if it were a record, and they did just that. Even if for the purpose of exploiting technology, this is awesome. The fact they used a Playstation Eye Camera alone makes this a cool project. Try doing that in the 70’s when that type of technology didn’t exist.

      1. The fact remains, the amount of effort that went into this validates the findings, at the end of the day the tree rings was converted to midi patterns and played with a piano, it could just as easy have been any other instrument but the piano sounded the best. try to appreciate the pure awesomeness of the project.

        Haters gonna hate!!!

        big up to the guys who made this happen!

  5. Hey there brucer!!, I am in copletagreeamobility with your vibes/reverbs towards grandpa Munster but, dont let his “aditune” get the beast of you to be ensure.

  6. Considering that a tree grows from its center outward, I would think the tree is being played backwards. It should be played as it was “recorded” – from the center most track, CCW to the outermost.

  7. It’s only emo sounding because the program is set to that minor chord. Throw in a few majors and bump up the tempo and that tree will rock out for sure. Besides, everything’s funnier in fast motion.

  8. Amazing interpretation… isn’t that what all music, even all sound is? We record certain tones, filter out others, mix this part higher or lower.. change or emphasize a chord… it doesn’t make it any less ‘true’ a sound to the person that created it.. everything we ‘hear’ is in one way or another an interpretation albeit just our own.

  9. I work with wood every day, and I really, really enjoyed this. There is a visual rhythm to grain, and it was wonderful to see that pattern interpreted as sound. I wonder if the measurements from a densitometer could translate to sound, too.
    Thank you for giving me yet another way to think about this wonderful material!
    Tib Shaw
    AAW Gallery of Wood Art

  10. i do not believe this tree is being played exactly like a record, but it could work in a similar way. in the describtion he says he used a playstation camera, rather than a needle like on a record player. the camera could be catching the image of the rings and the computer matching the position of the rings to a note on a music staff. in that case the tree wouldnt play the music but rather have music printed on it.

  11. This beyond me! I love cool things that are beyond me. Thanks for sharing this artful brilliance. Louise Ann

  12. Or, the artist was culturally disposed to decide, whether he thought he was or not, to come up with a dramatic, if gloomy, piece. It wouldn’t be very convincing if a tree that had stood for decades came out with something that sounded like “M-I-C K-E-Y m o u s e” or Justin Bieber, now would it?

    A good way to prove this is to have people of different ages, and from different cultures, with the same technical expertise set up the same experiment and see what they come up with.

  13. a wonderful piece. great idea skillfully developed. I’ve considered something like this in the deep past but dismissed it as impractical, we didn’t have this technology back in the iron age of SIM, not that I wood (sic.) have drawn the same conclusions. I love the aesthetics of it, simple, clear and to the point. the optical tracking is an ingenious solution, of course, tree rings are not spirally arranged, they are concentric, but irregular, so capturing that irregularity is down-right Cage-ian, The irony of the knot. As I might say to any of my hyper-creative friends, ” Do a hundred of them!” you might be amazed at how the concept evolves. Cheers! well done.

  14. While the art is no doubt impressive and technically complex, and beautiful to look at, I think there is valid criticism (whoa now, offer a critique of art? Never!) in the resultant sounds that are only tangentially related to the actual sonic vibrations picked up by the needle. I too was hoping for something more random, instead of notes on a major scale. But as someone else pointed out, it’s a reflection of the cultural values of the artist and it would be interesting to see how others choose to interpolate random noise.

  15. I’ve been waiting for this since I was a kid making noise art & now I find out some old log stole my song I’d sue if I was not the Lorcx that speaks for the trees!

  16. This an awsome example of a good variation of a sound and program that can reach notes from a tree,all the critics are just dumb and basically dont understand any of your findings to be relevent. But this is a very good idea i think and hope you do many more to see differences between different types of trees make various noises just to see what gives off a simple key to symbolise our living world .

  17. An amazing composition… The video is not necessary to appreciate the mastery of the music.

  18. Excellent piece… I applaud your expertise and genius! I guess it would respond to a thin slice of cabbage or other plant or fruit that grows with concentric rings…..

  19. all the comments seem to be either about how it’s amazing or how it’s total shit. i must say that while this provides zero scientific anything, it is pretty cool. some were expecting science and got art.

    i’ve also seen some hating on the art; saying it’s gimmicky or this and that just because it would be so easy to do. but i think it’s a great work.

    the thing that makes it good art is the fact that nobody else thought to do it first.

  20. I know its kinda a misleading video, but when i heard it you could almost hear the “strenuous” sections of the trees life. The article stated how the music is that of a horror flick and, in a way, the music represents the “horror” of the trees life. I dont know a ton about trees but im assuming the knots are a stressful period in a trees life, so every time you hear the pounding of the keys its almost as if u can hear the stress of the tree at that point in its life.

    Just enjoy the art the music ppl….everyone knows it doesnt make actual piano sounds

  21. I ‘d like to hear the songs of a redwood or a sequoia. they have many years of experience and pain to express.

  22. Lovely idea! I like that you created an interpreter that will work with different tree cross-sections. With different steppers you could filter leaves, rocks, wallpaper, anything with texture through a variety of interpreters. Are the sounds triggered by the transitions between light and dark?

    Don’t worry about the haters, noodling around with quirky ideas often leads to something fantastic. Keep on experimenting!

  23. If a tree plays a piano in the forest, and there’s nobody there with a Flash player to hear it, does it make a sound?

  24. Please put a ” Warning :Performance art ahead” label on this kind of story so people who don’t appreciate it don’t waste time figuring out that it is BS.

  25. All of the people giving crits to the tree-truck playing piano are right, and all of the people bashing the critics are clearly non-musicians and non-technical folk who haven’t a clue how turntables, sound, or music work.

    The article is unclear, plain and simple. The resultant piece is very cool, however the hell it was made.

  26. When I first started the video I thought it was background music leading up to the actual event of putting the cross section on the turntable. Then when I finished the description I realized it was all interpretation etc. I don’t know why there’s so much negative feedback, did people think that you were going to put a needle on a tree and it would play something awesome? I’d like to hear different instrument interpretations (electric guitar, harp) and also maybe speed up the turntable too during another interpretation.

    All in all I liked it a lot and am pretty darn impressed. Good idea!

  27. Wow, surprised how many rude comments were left on this. I found it to be rather interesting and very beautiful. I’m sorry some people can be so rude. Thank you for your video ^_^ I wonder if this was done with another portion of the same tree if it would create the same sound or if it would be different. Assuming the growth pattern isn’t altered by anything it would make sense to sound similar, however with knots and other things happening to the tree i think its fair to say it should be different ^+^

    1. I love it and think you’re very clever and to get it up and running brilliant, I’d love to see it compared with anything that any of the hatters have done!

  28. The idea is cool!

    As for the technology…

    1- Given the technology, you can probably convert anything you capture to midi notes. Be it camera or any other type of “capture” device. Hell you can probably convert seismic data to midi. Wonder what a 7 on a Richter scale would sound like? :p
    2- Ableton is reading the midi data and feeding it to a midi instrument. The piano could have been easily changed to a synthesizer and we could of all said it’s electronic music! In fact it’s so damn easy. While receiving midi notes in Ableton you can just cycle through the various instruments on the fly and hear the output directly.
    3- Ableton also provides midi “effects”. This allows Ableton to further analyze the midi notes process them in some sort of way and finally send them to the midi instrument. One such effect is is called the “Scale” effect. You simply tell the plugin convert all notes to a set scale like C Major and voila!

    There’s even Ableton plugins that even correct your playing. So no matter what keys you bash you are corrected to the scale. And now you also know why it’s so damn easy to make music these days.

    1. Anyways, I followed all the way to his site and there’s no mention of Ableton. Though he briefly mentions how he programmed a rule set and scale, effectively same as what you can do with Ableton. If he did indeed use Ableton then he spared himself the hassle lol.

      There’s innovators and there’s the rest!

  29. Anything would sound emo if you only gave it a minor chord to bang away at. Plug this into your wind chime, and it would sound like…well…your wind chime. Peaceful and pleasant.

  30. This allows Ableton to further analyze the midi notes process them in some sort of way and finally send them to the midi instrument. One such effect is is called the “Scale” effect. You simply tell the plugin convert all notes to a set scale like C Major and voila!

  31. Can someone upload the recording of the original sounds this made? Like the acutal turntable with the cross section of the tree on it? That would be such an amazing thing to compare to the actual piece!

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Matt Richardson is a San Francisco-based creative technologist and Contributing Editor at MAKE. He’s the co-author of Getting Started with Raspberry Pi and the author of Getting Started with BeagleBone.

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