• Drake Silver

Spider webs are being used to make music?

The researchers will present their findings at the American Chemical Society's spring meeting today (ACS). The ACS Spring 2021 conference will be held online from April 5 to 30. Live sessions will be held from April 5 to 16, with on-demand and networking content available until April 30. Nearly 9,000 presentations on a broad variety of science subjects are scheduled for the conference.

"The spider lives in a vibrating string setting," says Markus Buehler, Ph.D., the project's principal investigator and presenter. "Because they can't see clearly, they feel their surroundings by vibrations of varying frequencies." When a spider spreads a silk strand during building, or when the wind or a trapped fly moves the web, such vibrations occur.

Buehler, who has always been fascinated by music, wondered if he could derive non-human rhythms and melodies from natural materials including spider webs. He believes that "webs may be a modern source of musical inspiration that is very different from the typical human experience." Furthermore, Buehler and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), together with collaborator Tomás Saraceno of Studio Tomás Saraceno, hoped to gain new insights into the 3D design and creation of webs by experiencing a network through hearing as well as vision.

With these objectives in mind, the researchers used a laser to capture 2D cross-sections of a natural spider web, then used computer algorithms to recreate the web's 3D network. The team allocated various sound frequencies to web strands, resulting in "notes" that they combined in patterns based on the web's 3D structure to create melodies. The researchers then developed a harp-like instrument and performed live performances of the spider web music all over the world.

The team also created a virtual reality setup that allowed people to "enter" the web visually and audibly. "The virtual reality world is very intriguing because your ears can pick up structural features that you may not know right away," Buehler says. "You can really start to understand the spider's world by listening and seeing it at the same time."

The researchers scanned a web during its creation to gain insight into how spiders create webs, turning each stage into music with different sounds. "The sounds our harp-like instrument produces change over time, representing the spider's web-building phase," Buehler explains. "As a result, we will investigate the temporal sequence of how the web is built in audible form." This detailed understanding of how a spider constructs a web could aid in the development of "spider-mimicking" 3D printers capable of producing complex microelectronics. "The spider's method of 'printing' the web is remarkable because it doesn't need any support content, which is often needed in current 3D printing methods," he says.

In other studies, the researchers looked at how a web's sound changes as it's subjected to various mechanical forces, such as stretching. "We may begin to pull the web apart in the virtual reality world, and when we do, the tension of the strings and the sound they make change. The strands snap at some point and create a snapping sound "According to Buehler.

The team also wants to learn how to communicate with spiders in their native tongue. They measured web vibrations caused by spiders doing things like building webs, interacting with other spiders, and sending courtship signals. Despite the fact that the frequencies sounded close to the human ear, the sounds were correctly categorized into the various activities by a machine learning algorithm. "Right now, we're trying to produce synthetic signals to literally speak the spider's language," says Buehler. "Can we influence what they do by exposing them to certain rhythms or vibrations, and can we begin to interact with them? Those are some very interesting concepts."