Melody of Materials

Purnendu
3 min readAug 24, 2023

“The 19th century was about the control and manipulation of energy. The 20th century was about the control and manipulation of information. The 21st century will be about the control and manipulation of matter!”

~Tom Knight

Imagine going back in time; the year is 1850. You want to listen to your favorite song with proper vocals, chorus, and instrumental music. What would you do? You will have to go to an orchestra. No other option!!

A speaker can reproduce the sound from a drum, a harp, or a piano almost identically!

A group of artists with specialized instruments will play a variety of sound forms varying across pitch, duration, loudness, timbre, sonic texture, and spatial location. Each instrument would be specialized with a certain kind of sound owing to their constituent material properties as well as their geometry and design. There will be Idiophones (vibrating bodies), Membranophones (vibrating membrane), Chordophones (string instruments), and Aerophones (reed instruments).

A drum will have a particular sound in comparison to a harp or a piano. The materials of the drum (like the membrane made of dry skin ) as well as the form factor will decide the quality and type of sound it can produce. The materials of string on a harp as well as their lengths determine their reverberating clangs. All these instruments use the fact that almost all materials around us can produce some sort of sound (say when they are dropped accidentally). That kind of sound is dependent on the inherent material properties of the system and its form factor. The sound of these traditional instruments is tied to their design but also to the ‘materials’ of the instrument. Sound is frozen into the material properties of the system. A harp can not replace a drum and both of them can’t replace a Piano.

Speakers are “Universal Sound Machines”. Can we build a “Universal Material Machine”?

Fast forward to today, you can play all those sounds through a speaker! An instrument made of magnets, coils, a membrane, etc. arranged in a specific fashion can reproduce the sound from a drum, a harp, or a piano almost identically! (Of course, there is debate between acoustic and electronic modes of music production.) Sound is now more free from the ‘material properties’ of the system and primarily dependent on the system design. The nature of this sound is very different from the sound produced by the individual material components. It is ‘electronic’ in its character (instead of acoustic).

Today we take the design of speakers and the current way of music generation for granted without realizing how much ‘design’ has gone into it. What is so special about a speaker that makes it a ‘universal music machine’? Why does only a system of magnets, coil, and diaphragm work but not others? For instance, all electromechanical devices will produce a sound in one form or the other. Check this music creation video using electric stepper motors below. But no other device has as high a bandwidth as the current design of a speaker.

Can we do the same thing for arbitrary material properties? Can we find a similar design for a system that can change material properties in response to electronic signals? What will the Universal Material Machine look like? What will be its constituents? What kind of system architecture it will follow?

[Content will be expanded over time. These are unpolished ideas published as a note to share with selected people. ]

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Purnendu

Designer trained as Physicist | Currently @ Reality Labs Research at Meta | PhD student @cuatlas | Previously: IIT Roorkee, Co-founder @log9materials