Nigel Stanford

The Future of Music: Making Sound Visible with Video Art


At the heart of the “future of audio” are people – inspired individuals who dare to give shape to their creative vision and artistic imagination. Decision makers who prefer to reach their audiences and customers through great audio. Audio lovers who work relentlessly on innovative projects, who redefine and recreate sound experiences that touch the very souls of their listeners. “People” is dedicated to all those musicians, artists, engineers, producers, decision makers, owners and audio designers who fill and shape our world with sensational sound.

Sound that you can see. Intelligent machines that can replace humans in the composition of music. In his videos, artist Nigel Stanford peers into the future of sound. His projects will be featured at the Sennheiser booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

  • Author: Simon E. Fuchs
  • Photos: Nigel Stanford

Nigel Stanford pushes a key on his keyboard and kernels of sand start to dance on a black panel. With the press of another key, the kernels transform into another form. It may look like magic, but it is science that gets the music dancing.

The innovative artist has linked the worlds of music and science. His videos “Cymatics” and “Automatica,” transcend borders. “Cymatics” alone has been viewed over 9 million times on YouTube and 45 million on Facebook.

Stanford will provide a glimpse behind the scenes at the Art Basel art fair. In one video he shows how he developed his minutely detailed music videos. Even though the videos appear to be very natural and flowing, a great deal of work goes into them.

Work that was worth the effort. “I always wanted to make videos that turn sound into form,” says Stanford. The 40-year-old from Wellington in New Zealand is a producer and a musician. With his video art, he is demonstrating a new way of making music visible. He presents it artfully and with painstaking attention to detail.

Synesthesia – the Ability to See Sounds – as a Source of Inspiration

It was the Internet that inspired him to make his videos; in 1999, he watched a video that was his first introduction to synesthesia. People who have synesthesia cognitively combine two stimuli that don’t normally belong together. Sounds, for example, can be seen as colors and forms.

Years later, Stanford saw a video about Cymatics, the art of making sound visible -- such as sound waves moving water or sand. For Stanford, the clip on Cymatics provided the inspiration to create his first such video. Stanford himself was surprised by the success of his first video. “I knew the videos were good,” he says, “But I didn’t imagine this kind of success.”

Visiting a Mad Professor

It’s clear from the first video that Stanford does indeed have command over the four elements. Flashes from a Tesla coil twitch to the music, flames flicker to the sound, water forms along with the bass drum beat and sand dances on a so-called “Chladni plate,” controlled by the keyboard. Using six different experiments, Stanford shows what sound can look like.

Stanford transformed his home into a laboratory, working on the mini-experiments for four weeks. He bought the individual parts for the Chladni Plate on an Internet page for physics teachers. The larger experiments required more preparation. For an entire month, he busied himself solely with a pipe filled with propane gas known as a Rubens’ tube.

From Wellington, Stanford flew to New York where he, his filmmaker friend Shahir Daud and a team of 20 people filmed the video. Even during the filming, adjustments and improvements had to be made and problems fixed: One of the speakers blew out; a container for water began leaking. “It was stressful, but it was worth it,” Nigel Stanford says today. After two days, the filming of the video was finished.

„I Need Headphones That Can Reproduce All Frequencies“

The images that flow organically in the video are actually a puzzle made up of many individual pieces. Instead of playing a finished song completely through, the project’s approach was a different one. The song may have already existed in a raw version. But only individual sounds were recorded during the filming – which were later combined to form the completed song. The production of the video took a total of eight months.

For the filming of the video, Stanford used a lot of devices and contraptions that he had built himself. But when it came to the music instruments, microphones and headphones, he relied on established brands. Among others, he used the MOMENTUM Headphone and the HD800 from Sennheiser. “I need headphones that can reproduce all frequencies,” he says.

Searching for the Perfect Machine

Following his initial resounding success, Stanford came up with bigger experiments for his second video. And he worked with robots. He no longer wanted to generate music with his own hands, he wanted the machines to play the instruments. “We had to be careful. They were the fastest robots in the world,” Stanford says. One wrong move and they could have tossed him into the wall.

The filming was more complicated than his first video. For a total of a week, Stanford filmed together with a team of 40 people. “I like to get my hands dirty,” he says. During the making of this video too, he followed the maxim: Only the best is good enough. Stanford and his team lit up an entire warehouse, with the lights and cameras controlled by various programs.

Artificial Intelligence

The orange robots gently strum the strings of a guitar and rapidly play the keys of a keyboard. The video demonstrates the potential power of combining artificial intelligence with music. At the beginning of the video, Stanford shows them how he plays. At the end, the machines show him new ways of playing. The finished video will be released at the beginning of 2016.

In the future, Stanford plans to work even more intensely with artificial intelligence. He’s currently working on software that will be able to compose music on its own. Some of these songs will find their way onto his new album. He also plans to continue combining music with visual effects.

Nigel Standford wearing a HD 800

The Future of Music

How does he imagine the future of music? “Hopefully it will be less linear,” Stanford says. He believes in interactive music, including apps that allow listeners to control the music themselves to a certain degree. Some artists, like Björk, have already experimented with the concept. The Icelandic singer brought out an entire album in the form of an app. For Stanford, the future of music is experimental. It should react to its surroundings and become visible.

With his music experiments, he believes he is only at the very beginning of the possibilities. “I have only scratched the surface,” he says.