Thursday, June 28, 2012

Q: What Do Gravitational Waves "Sound" Like?

Okay, this isn't a question that I usually get asked but the answer to this question is the basis of my answer to questions about how we can determine information about what produced a gravitational wave from the signals we detect.  So, how do we do that?

One convenient feature of LIGO is that it is most sensitive in the frequencies that the human ear could hear if gravitational waves made sound - but they don'tI can't stress this enough: gravitational waves do NOT make sounds since a sound waves are fundamentally different from gravitational waves.  But, if we take the data we gather from LIGO of a gravitational wave, we can put that signal through speakers and convert them into sound.  In this way, LIGO is very much like a gravitational-wave radio...


Radio stations broadcast radio waves at a specific frequency (this is the number that you tune your radio to) and music is encoded onto this wave.  Whereever you are right now, you are most likely surrounded by radio waves from numerous stations but you can't hear radio waves or the music that is encoded onto them.  To hear this music, you need to have an instrument that can detect the radio waves, decode the music from them, and turn this signal into sound using a speaker.  Now, you can hear the music.

LIGO is a completely passive detector (meaning we just wait for something to happen, we cause nothing that we can detect other than noise) just like your radio is passive (it can't create music).  We wait for a gravitational wave to pass by Earth, and if it is strong enough and in the frequency range that we are sensitive to, then LIGO will detect a signal.  From that signal, we can extract information about what made the gravitational wave, like a radio decodes the music from the broadcast radio waves.  Once we have detected the signal, we can put that signal through speakers to convert it into sound.  Just like a radio, it is the speakers that make the sound and not the detector.  Since LIGO is sensitive to frequencies that are in the same ranges of sounds we can hear, we can hear the gravitational-wave signals when put through a speaker.  Now we can extract information about what made the gravitational wave just like we can hear the different instruments and voices in music.


Initial LIGO's most sensitive range (as we were before we started our current upgrades) was between about 60 Hz to 800 Hz.  This corresponds to the lowest note on a cello (click here to hear what 65.41 Hz sounds like) to the lower notes on a piccolo (click here to hear what 523.25 Hz sounds like), respectively (according to Wikipedia).  Once Advanced LIGO is complete and operating at sensitivity, it will be more than 10x as sensitive as Initial LIGO and its most sensitive region will be between about 20 Hz to 2000 Hz (this is the range that produces at least 10x the sensitivity of the sensitive range noted for Initial LIGO).  This corresponds to the lowest frequencies humans can hear (like the lowest note on a tuba) which is usually felt more than heard to a little below the highest note on a flute (click hear to hear what 2093 Hz sounds like).  LIGO's sensitivity to different frequencies are shown graphically below:

LIGO sensitivity vs. frequency (see this post for a description of how to interpret this plot).
Click on the graph to see a larger image.

Recall from a previous post that it is because LIGO is most sensitive to the audible frequency range that we cannot detect gravitational waves from the Moon, Sun, and planets; they produce gravitational waves at much lower frequencies.


We can tell just from what a gravitational wave "sounds" like what category it is classified as; there are 4 major categories:

  1. Inspiral gravitational waves: two massive objects orbiting each other faster and faster as they get closer together and eventually merge into one.  Pairs of neutron stars, black holes, or the combination of the two are prime candidates for detection.
  2.      ⇒These waves are expected to sound like a "chirp" (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

  3. Continuous gravitational waves: a distorted object rotating about its axis with a constant frequency (the Earth rotates with a very constant frequency of once per day).  A neutron star rotating rapidly with a "mountain" on it are prime candidates.  ("Mountain" is in quotation marks because it is a deformation as little as a few inches high on the nearly perfectly spherical neutron star.)
  4.      ⇒These waves are expected to sound like a single tone (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

  5. Stochastic gravitational waves: many weak signals from different sources combining into one "jumble" of a signal.  Relic gravitational waves from the Big Bang are expected to be candidates for detection.
  6.       ⇒These waves are expected to sound like static noise (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

  7. Burst gravitational waves: these waves are short duration and from unanticipated sources or from known sources where we can't be sure what the gravitational waves will "sound" like.  I like to call these the gravitational waves that go 'bump' in the night.
  8.       ⇒These waves are expected to sound like 'snaps', 'crackles', and 'pops' (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

While is is great to see and hear the differences between the different kinds of gravitational waves, it is harder to see how we can glean more specific information about the thing(s) that made the gravitational wave.  The answer is that we can use general relativity to predict what kinds of signals ("sounds") a certain situation will create.  Below is a movie by Steve Drasco (Caltech/CalPoly) showing the sped up evolution of a body 270 times the mass of our Sun orbiting and finally merging with a supermassive black hole 3 million times the mass of our Sun.  The movie starts one year before the two objects merge and the bottom of the frame shows a graph of the gravitational waves while the majority of the frame shows the orbit of the system.  As you listen, you can hear how the tone changes into the chirp that is characteristic of this kind of system (the movie is ~13 MB so it may take a minute or two to load):


By studying the predictions of what different gravitational waves will "sound" like, we can translate a detected gravitational wave into information on the system that made it.


Yes and no...  The option to listen to the data as it is collected is available to scientists working in the LIGO control room.  I've done it but I don't make a habit out of it since almost all of what LIGO detects is small vibrations from our environment.  You can listen to real LIGO noise by clicking here (if you carefully listen all the way to the end, you can hear a fake inspiral chirp that has been added to the data - you may miss it).  Since what you predominantly hear sounds like static, it can lull you to sleep which isn't advisable when you are the responsible scientist on duty!  Also, almost all gravitational waves will be too weak to hear with our ears which is why we mainly analyze data using sophisticated data analysis techniques that have been specially designed to search for each of the four categories of gravitational waves.  (This is what I do for a living!)

I also wrote in March 2011 about a fake signal that was placed (injected) into the LIGO data to test if our data analysis techniques could really detect a gravitational wave if there was one.  This was a blind test (called the "Big Dog" due to its apparent location in the constellation Canis Major) meaning that only a few individuals knew about this fake signal and the rest of us were left to find it and interpret its results.  While we did not detect this signal by listening to it, it can be heard in both the LIGO detectors (about 17 seconds into the recording linked below).  This is real LIGO data and the sound may be VERY LOUD - so turn your volume down before you play it and then adjust it!
     ⇒Click here to hear the data around the blind injection for LIGO Hanford, WA.
     ⇒Click here to hear the data around the blind injection for LIGO Livingston, LA.*
          *Note that there is a audible instrumental "glitch" in the Livingston data about 8 seconds into the recording; this is unrelated to the injection.

While it is difficult to hear gravitational waves that will be buried in detector noise, there is no denying that the human brain is very effective at breaking sounds down into their individual components.  A recent Physics Today article titled "Shhhh.  Listen to the Data" discusses the advantages of humans listening to data and features a discussion of this application to LIGO.  Also, if you want to test your ear's talent at "hearing" gravitational waves, there is a fantastic website called Black Hole Hunter which places black hole gravitational wave "sounds" (like the system in the movie above) into simulated data and tests if you can discern the signal.  I've spent many an hour playing with this and even use some of the cell phone ringtones they've made (also available on the Black Hole Hunter site).

*** If you are interested in more gravity games, see my Gravity Games page (link here and under the blog banner)! ***


There are some great sites that feature the "sounds" of gravitational waves.  Here are a few of my favorites:


  1. Hi Amber --- nice post! Note, the site of mine that you linked to is a bit on the old side; I no longer really keep it up to date. Stuff on GWs and sounds that I do intend to keep updated can be found here:

    Truth is, I haven't updated this in a long time either (having a baby does have a way of forcing one to prioritize one's time...), but if I ever do, the update will appear at the gmunu site.



    1. Thanks for the updated link! I've always loved your page since even if it is a little dated, it does a great job explaining the sounds.

      I will make sure to put the updated link in the blog post so that everyone can see it (not just those who read the comments).

    2. Cool, thanks for the update!

      (Can you tell I'm procrastinating? Two blog comments in 5 minutes ...)


  2. I bet if a very strong gravitational wave went through an object you'd be able to hear vibrations (though that really would be a worryingly strong wave).

    (I once "heard" an electromagnetic wave. Lightning went off half a mile away and I immediately heard a crackle from the metal on the outer shell of the building. A couple of seconds later there was the thunder.)

    1. You are right about a *worryingly* strong wave making a sound. The first method of looking for a gravitational wave was a bar of metal that will ring like a bell when a gravitational wave at the right frequency passed by. It would never make a "sound" but sensitive accelerometers would be able to detect the vibration.

      I plan a post on this, but until then you can look up "Weber Bar".

      (And I've heard about "hearing" the crackling of electricity on metal from lightning but I've never experienced it myself. It sounds cool and a bit unnerving!)

    2. Thanks, I didn't know they'd tried solid bar detectors. (Kind of a bind being only sensitive to one frequency though?)

      By the way, I came on one of your LIGO tours in late May in a group of particle accelerator physicists. I just got around to organising my photos and found your blog! I really enjoyed the tour, though I probably asked too many questions (I always do that).

    3. True, the bar detectors were only sensitive to one frequency, but when you have an inspiral source it creates a chirp (which you can hear above) and signal goes through a range of frequencies. If the chirp passes over the resonant frequency of the mass, it will set it ringing like a bell.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the tour! I had a great time taking everyone around and answering all of your challenging questions as best I could! There are never too many questions - you had to get back on the bus eventually :)