If you were to do a plane or world where music interacts with everything and instruments are essentially able to influence reality based on how they are played, what would be the practical difficulties? Where might such a world fall apart, and what would you suggest as caveats to prevent that from happening?

I am breaking this down into areas of interest, as it was stated to be too broad as a single question.

Assumption: Sound has the power to influence everything in the world. The percussion of your footsteps temporarily discolors the ground, the tone when you speak stirs the air, the chopping of an axe against a tree causes the forest to actually shudder. Music or harmonics have the ability to cause larger effects.

Issue 1: Vibration Q. If the impact of sound causes vibrations that in turn can cause sound, how might you limit the ripple effects to maintain a functional world?

Issue 2: Scale Q. If a drum can influence the world, surely a volcano or a thunder storm are even more exciting than normal. Controlling for scale seems important, but how to codify such a control?

Issue 3: Animals Q. Many animals make appealing noises and sounds, and it can be assumed in such a world that the number of animals who adapt to exploit the harmonic nature of the world would increase. What impact might that have on a broader sense? I'm envisioning a murder of crows being a truly frightening sight.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Hi and welcome to WB! I think this is a really interesting question but as it stands it's VERY broad. When you say influence reality are you talking about a "song of the world" type thing where musicians can cast spells/magic or are you after voice/music interface for technology? Any details you can give to narrow down the scope would be great. On a site like this being specific is key! :) $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Sep 30, 2014 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Cool question, but I agree with @Liath some more details and more specific ideas of what you are looking for would be great $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Sep 30, 2014 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with Liath, it's a very good question, you just need to find specific instances of what you want. Ask us if you have questions. Look at the faq for help asking questions. $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Sep 30, 2014 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ Did you consider to add a psychic component? That sound only has power when someones brain interprets it as music and the effect is rather a subconscious psychic power exerted by the listener? That would solve the problem of any kind of noise causing uncontrollable effects. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Sep 30, 2014 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Not quite what you're describing here, but you might find the Spellsong Cycle series interesting. Music (of any sort) has great power there, although sound, in general, doesn't. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Oct 1, 2014 at 12:26

11 Answers 11


The main effect would be that people would make far less music. Music is dangerous, and therefore not the sort of thing people would engage in without purpose. Once that's cleared up, it really just works the same way that magic does in any other setting, maybe it's secretive and only taught to a few in fancy colleges, maybe the world is speckled with hedge musicians who teach by apprenticeship, maybe whatever other system you come up with.

Issue 1 (Vibration) is largely a non-issue. The vibrations created by sound create far less sound than it took to create them. Sound still dies out.

Issue 2 (Scale) can be controlled by just having the effect of major natural noises being the same as the things that cause those noises in the real world. Lightning is caused by thunder instead of the other way around, with the source of thunder being some mysterious process in the clouds. That keeps those sounds appropriately impressive without breaking things.

Issue 3 (Animals) mainly comes down to animals developing specialized organs to make very specific sounds, even more so than they already do. This would have no major impact on the nature of the ecology as a whole, it would just mean that some predators shoot lightning instead of ripping things apart with claws. Note also that most animals would try to avoid making sound as much as is possible outside of specific sounds they intend to exploit, since they are even more likely to draw unwanted attention than in the real world.

  • $\begingroup$ The way you propose predators shooting lightning makes me envision a world of creatures that hunt like Mantis Shrimp. $\endgroup$
    – Stephen R
    Oct 1, 2014 at 13:18

1) Vibration

If you hold to the conservation of mass & energy, then the sonic energy output of a given reaction would be less than the sonic energy input, before you consider the potential energy released. I would assume that releasing potential sonic energy would be quite important to your world. Much as generating a spark to light a fire or tipping the first domino of an impressive display, the use of sonic energy to amplified effect through stored potential sonic energy would be a goal of those seeking power. Your world might have the equivalent of WMDs in those songs/tones/harmonics that produce such amplified effects. For example, a specific wail might cause stone to rend and scream in agony, which triggers a chain reaction in neighboring stone to the point of causing a mountain to explode in a cataclysm of rock shards.

In other contexts, however, many reactions may well be defensive and specifically dampen the effect. For example, shuddering trees might cause a sound inverse to the axe's chopping so as to limit the number of trees that suffer from the sound.

2) Scale

Reversing cause and effect, as suggested by @Saidoro, is an excellent choice. Having thunder cause lightning and a tremendous roar cause a volcanic eruption will emphasize the place that sound has in your world. This also opens up dramatic tension where a dormant volcano begins roaring and everyone knows to flee, or better yet, attempt to counter the sound, perhaps with calming songs that quiet the earth and lead to peace and stability.

The inverse-square law also helps to explain potent local effects from relatively low energy (human voice) while not having the world end with the first volcano. Because it takes 4x as much energy to have the same effect at 2x the distance, an incredibly load/potent sound that is 100x as loud as what is required to kill everything within 3 feet will "only" kill everything within 30 feet. You need to get to 10,000x power to reach 300 feet. Decibels are already on a logarithmic scale to help with such comparisons.

3) Animals

Silence would be even more important for most animals to avoid becoming prey, as noise would leave greater evidence of their presence. Animals would also, presumably, develop even more specialized sound-producing organs to assist in hunting, defense, and every other aspect of survival. For example, rather than a beaver that has teeth designed for cutting wood, you instead have a creature that can sing the song that bends trees to one's will to build living structures of wood.

Just as animals have highly developed physical predator/prey equipment, such as teeth, claws, muscles, hide, etc., I would expect highly developed sonic abilities. Presumably human beings will be the top predator in large part through musical instruments and other sound producers that permit human beings to generate sounds far beyond the capabilities of another animal with similar lung capacity/strength.


If you were to do a plane or world where music interacts with everything and instruments are essentially able to influence reality based on how they are played, what would be the practical difficulties? Where might such a world fall apart, and what would you suggest as caveats to prevent that from happening?

This is an extraordinarily complicated question, but -- with all due respect -- the first clarification or moderation applied to the question has taken it in what I think is a problematic and overly narrow direction. Music is not intrinsically about vibrations, sound, pressure, or anything like that. It is what it is. See Plato's various discussions (often highly negative).

Music affects people, or the world, because it does. Now you have to immediately ask, "why?" That could be because of vibrations or sound or whatever, but it could be because of harmonic relationships. For example, you could say that any absolute relationship of 1:2 or 2:3 has an automatic effect on the world, because in fact, normally speaking, nobody and nothing ever gets close to such precise relations. We always approximate. So we try to build a house that's twice as long as it is wide, but in fact we get kinda close to a 1:2 but not really. Thing is, we can tune an interval very precisely, because if we put a bar on a string at nearly 1:2 (5" from one end, 10" from the other), and vibrate the string, we can roll the bar up and down until our ears tell us that the relationship is getting closer, and then any ear that isn't actually tone-deaf can home in on the correct relation until we get very precisely to 1:2. Or 2:3. 3:4 is trickier, but not by much. And that gives us octaves, fifths, and fourths, and they are perfectly (justly) tuned. And that is not normal: few if any other relations in the real world can be "tuned" so perfectly

So why is that?

Well, maybe it's because the universe is structured around these special relationships, but only music is able to bring them to the fore. Or maybe it's because the Gods like music, and have infused its basic relations with special divine qualities. Or maybe it's because the stars are exactly in those sorts of relational distances and aspects, and this reflects down into the sublunary world through music -- in which case, why music alone?

So far, all this is pre-created: this is Greek music theory 101 through elementary medieval European music theory 101. And I do mean 101: you have no idea just how complicated this stuff could get.

But to answer the question: why does music affect the world? Because the world is built on musical relations, from soup to nuts; more accurately, Creation itself is built on those relations. When we perform or play or think about musical harmony, we are tapping into the structure of the universe itself. Nothing else but pure Euclidean mathematics (which has no real-world analogy) is like this.


What are you trying to explain, exactly, and how does it work in your universe? Because I can explain music having pretty much any implication you want, without having to invent anything whatsoever. You just have to realize that "music" does not mean "sound": it means complex mathematical relations that may be expressed sonically but are weirdly drawn toward perfect integer relations... just to begin, at least.

Background Thinking

Bear in mind that the category "music" is in no sense obvious or automatic. While we know of few if any cultures whose people do not produce something we in the modern West would classify as "music," we also know of few if any cultures that have a category or classification that maps the modern Western "music" at all smoothly. To give the obvious example (which also lines up with my previous remarks, historically), in the Middle Ages, "musica" (Lat.) was classified together with astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic; these are the quadrivium, the topics of study and analysis founded in the nature of the Creation as God chose to make it. Then you have the trivium -- rhetoric, grammar, and logic -- which are the topics founded in human thought and arbitrariness (in the technical sense). The reason "musica" was in the quadrivium and not the trivium was not only that "musica" is rooted in harmonic relations and so forth. It's also because what we usually mean by "music" today was a narrow subset called "musica practica," music as it is actually done in human life. And this was deemed uninteresting, unimportant, and largely insignificant, because what's interesting and important about music is how it is embedded in the Creation, NOT what you happen to hear somebody singing on a streetcorner. The point is, again, that clarification is needed.

At base, "what if music is really super-important and powerful" is not a hypothetical question; it is a historical one. But it's not necessarily a physics question, and it certainly is not a matter of weaponizing sound. In order to dig into the issue more deeply, you have to consider just what you mean by "music" as opposed to "sound" or "noise".


I would start with some assumptions:

  • The nature (as in not living things) are unchanged. Vocanos erupt, lightening strikes, etc.
  • Sound creates a reaction in matter which causes visible light to be emitted (in reality, sound can cause things to heat up, which emits infrared light, so this new world will have something similar, but greatly amplified)
  • The technology has progressed at least as far as the world today.
  • Harmonics, or pleasing sounds to human ears, have a far greater effect than dissonant sounds (as per OP)
  • All movement creates a little sound (this is true in our world)
  • Sound can be bad, harmonics are unimaginably worse.

Human interactions

Language would be vastly different. If spoken language exists, it would be very different to what we experience today. A form of sign language could be a possible adaption to having such a dangerous organ (the voice box). If humans developed a spoken language, they would be careful not to speak over each other, as accidental harmonics wouldn't be pleasant.

A baby would soon learn that shouting loudly would hurt, so they wouldn't shout. In fact, any kind of hearing would become unnecessary, since all sound has real consequences. As has already been mentioned, music would be limited. The natural instincts of parents would be greatly altered.

Humans who learn to whistle and sing at the same time would have unnatural power. However, it's quite possible their lips would become calloused (as a guitar player's hands do) from the vibrations. Inner mouth shields could possibly be developed to bounce sound out of the mouth instead of going into the head, allowing for stronger sound output from the mouth. This also has implications for impressive 'concerts' involving light shows similar to fire-spitting performers. Also, martial arts involving harmonics?

TV's etc. would likely not produce any sound as something that is designed to be on for long periods of time will eventually cause damage to the surrounding structure. Also, accidental harmonic resonance with the surrounding environment could cause unwanted destruction. This leads to several questions about communication in general. Assuming sign language takes over:

  • Would the telephone be developed? What would it be (weapon/excavation technique)?
  • Would the jump to video communication be possible? (e.g. technology progression something like light signals -> morse code via light -> video communication)

Assuming voice communication happened:

  • How would the telephone be different? (perhaps there would be a box to speak into so that sound didn't leak out to accidentally destroy people)

Animal interactions

Herbivores would avoid sound at all costs. Creatures such as hummingbirds would likely not exist, since they would likely damage flowers/each other etc.. But if you're not being too careful with physics, it would be interesting to see the light come off their wings. Birds would focus on large wing structures to avoid unecessary flapping. Insects may be very different (imagine how easy the life of a predator would be when it's food literally lights up like a christmas tree). Possible insect adaptions include:

  • faster reproduction (to avoid predators)
  • The swarm creates directed sound at the predator, each member of the swarm creating a different frequency, so that all of them meet at the predator. This would make many many harmonics in a tiny space (think explosion).
  • a lot more walking involved, flight only as an escape mechanism
  • becoming poisonous or physically difficult to eat (e.g. spiked)

Other herbivores may adapt to use vibrations to knock down fruit etc. from trees.

Predators would also rely on being as quiet as possible, but catching prey would look magnificent. Subtle adaptions could include multiple resonance chambers in a thick skull to frighten prey or even incapacitate at close distance.

Nature, and human adaption to it

Places that frequently earthquake or lightening would be out of bounds. It would just not be plausible to live there. If anything lived there would either fly or do something to disconnect it from the vibrations.

Sounds that cause sounds etc. would naturally dissipate, although likely much more destructively than our world (as mentioned before). The side effect of this is that sound would travel much less in media it could destroy. For example, you might not hear a pot falling in the kitchen upstairs, but you might find the pot melted and the ground dented. You would build floors that don't break so easily.

Avalanches would likely become earthquakes, but again, the energy would travel less. But the mountainside might take a hit because of the sound.


Issue 1

Sound would dissipate more quickly so it wouldn't travel as far. In solid media, sound would likely cause more destruction (and therefore travel less).

Issue 2

Intelligent beings would likely deal with the issue of scale themselves and naturally avoid dangerous circumstances (much the way humans avoid overly hot or cold climates).

Issue 3

The most pronounced change would be that animals would try to eliminate sound as much as possible. Anything that gives away an animals position is usually a disadvantage in the wild. Packs of animals could destroy prey/trees/rocks by emitting sound from different points in space aimed at the same place.


My first assumption to this would be (to keep things from escalating) that the sounds would be absorbed as part of their affecting other things. So the crunch of gravel coloring the ground quiets the crunch by absorbing some of the sound into the discoloration.

These kinds of reactions could go both ways, sounds could be absorbed most of the time, or amplified or 'rebroadcast' if pleasant sound like singing or a warning like an ax against a tree. At least from things with a 'living aura' might be able to amplify or 'push/rebroadcast'.


Well, there is such things as Harmonics and Resonance, which helps explains some of the more crazy things that sound can actually do. Those links are good background reading for this sort of thing.

Issue 1: Sounds causing sounds, which cause sounds, which cause...

This can be very easily solved with energy. Even in physical systems in which resonance is happening, you still need to put energy in before stuff breaks. Do you have a horn that causes walls to break up? Well, you need a bigger horn to break more wall.

You can even say that you need a basic amount of energy in your sound (well, an intensity at the receiving object) for the receiving object to make sounds. Also, the sounds made by that object need not be of the same frequency as the initial vibration; there can be dampening effects which stop hinder the magic.

Issue 2: Scale

This is most easily solved using resonance. Sure, a drum may have the right frequencies to cause a certain magical effect, but a thunderclap does not. This, once again, relies on harmonics. If big sounds cause certain effects, then you better make sure that whatever is living there can survive those effects.

Issue 3: Animals Using Harmonics!?

Well, animals would use this to their advantage. Plants and animals seem to exploit all sorts of physical phenomena to gain advantages. You may even see some creatures invest in forms of soundproofing or noise cancellation. Obviously, creatures who make a wide range of sounds would have an advantage here.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a source for the animals that do soundproofing and noise cancellation? That sounds really interesting but a quick glance at the wikipedia links didn't seem to mention it... $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Sep 30, 2014 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Sadly, no, it's just speculation. Of course, there are things like Tiger's feet, whose pads are made to reduce noise, but I don't know of anything which actively cancels noise. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Sep 30, 2014 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ Ahh, I missed your meaning. You are suggesting they would evolve on Harmonia (to invent a name for this world) not that they exist in our world. In that case I agree with you :) $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Sep 30, 2014 at 22:28

Considering the much larger scale of the effects of sound in this setting, I would assume some drastic differences, primarily adaptations to reduce the influence of sound on the world:

( Keep in mind, I'm assuming we want to maintain a world resembling what we know - Honestly, for sound to be this effective, the world would be unrecognizable )

Overland materials, such as rocks, trees etc. would probably be more porous or softer, to avoid being shattered and torn apart by intense sounds during heavy weather or the concentrated effects of animals using sound as a means to hunt or influence their environment. For rocks, this would be because you'd only see rocky material that is soft and sound-proof enough to maintain structure for long periods of time. The surface might be quite sandy as well.

Winds could be quite intense, especially during weather phenomena and even worse during volcanic eruptions.


Q1. As mentioned above, the world would adapt, so would biology to dampen sound; you'd see a lot more soft materials covering familiar natural structures or said structures being composed entirely of sound-dampening materials (or they would more often exclude sound-trasmitting mediums)

Q2. The cause reversal already proposed should work well enough

Q3. Animals would again not only develop a lot more sound-centric tooling and weaponry, but would also develop sound-dampening significantly. You might not see as many hard-shelled creatures, but you probably wouldn't see more ears (since the reason sight is preferred isn't just because light is so prevalent, it's also because it's very efficient in providing information, compared to sound).

I'd also like to repeat Saidoro's assumption that music would be far less prevalent - this isn't because it isn't appealing, but if a drum can cause havoc, it would be like using a gun to paint (i guess). But there would also be a lot more use for music as a tool.


One thing I've not yet seen mentioned is communication (both human and animal). Using sound (especially loud sound like a warning cry) to communicate may be a bad idea if it can have all sorts of side effects. So probably other communication channels would develop to be used in preference to acoustic communication; maybe optical ones where the skin colour can be changed (like a chameleon, but faster) for sending signals. On the other hand, maybe the side effects of sounds are used to have a greater effect than the sound alone (if that is the case, the aforementioned warning cry would actually be a good example where it might be desired).

People would also probably not speak acoustically to each other. They may have developed sign language; however they also might have biologically developed an optical communication channel (skin colour/patterns, bioluminescence) sophisticated enough to be used for language. Generating sound would likely be restricted to actually manipulating the surrounding. Probably the idea of communicating with sound (i.e. speaking) would be so alien to humans that few would ever even think about sound as a possible communication medium.


It is for most cases easy to dampen sound, and that probably would be a requirement for all tasks performed. Axe-handles would probably be designed to absorb vibrations (and therefore sound), or certain actions would have to be taken beforehand, like putting up sound absorbing walls around the tree. Shoes would have a very soft sole to prevent noise from walking, and things like metal necklaces would be generally unheard of.

Everything can can make noise would be carefully designed to serve a purpose, so drums would probably not exist, except for those that have been carefully designed to cause a very specific sound for a specific purpose.

If very loud sounds (thunder crack) could have wide-spread devastating effects, such a world could have never survived, so there must be a reason why certain sounds just won't cause havoc. A possible reason could be that it requires a melody for a certain effect (which would also counter the wood-chopping or walking). Or the effect of such noises would actually be beneficial, for example the crack of thunder could cause water to appear, which then explains the rain.

Animals would adapt and send out sounds that fulfills their purpose. Most animal noises that can be heard at night (in the real world) are made to lure potential mates for reproduction to them. Maybe the effect would be much stronger in your world? A roar of a defending animal could cause fear to be applied magically on the target. Also most animals would completely rely on sound as their offensive and defensive abilities, as there is no need for claws, if you can just whistle someone to death.

There would as well be a strong effect on society. If speaking, singing or even knocking on something could cause magic effects, the world would either be very a savage one, or parents would spent much time on educating their children on how to be responsible when using such powerful magic. If you imagine to give every child in the real world a real fairy that fulfills their wishes, then many things would be very chaotic.


A dimensional rift would be useful. Basically you can have a world 'in the balance.' Different sounds can cause rifts to different worlds depending on their tone and pitch. The size of the rift depends on how amplified the sound is.

It would bring a whole new meaning to the word 'hush.'


Who says this doesn't already happen?

Quantum physics actually is the world you are describing. The QM model is based on the fundamental assumption that everything is model able as a wave, known as a quantum waveform. Everything you are looking to have happen actually occurs in QM.

So why don't we find the world we live in looks like a bunch of harmonic waves? It actually does look like a bunch of harmonic waves in areas termed "linear." Motion of objects through air at high speed are often best modeled using waves and harmonics, actually. The issue shows up when something behaves non-linearly.

QM suggests that everything is actually linear, but the "reality" is so complicated that actually modeling the world in this way is too computationally expensive and too hard to measure. If you accounted for the exact state of every proton neturon, etc. in the entire universe, and constructed a quantum waveform for it all, you could actually view the world as a bunch of harmonics!

In reality, we find non-linear models do a better job given our imperfect view of the universe. We like the idea of particles colliding, because it matches well with our billiard-ball style intuition of how things should work.

So you'll probably want to look at what QM does to solve this. The solution of choice is called a Wave Packet. A wave packet acts like a snippit of a wave with some location. It is easy to show that QM lets you break apart the universe's waveform into a bunch of these little wavepackets (with a few minor caveats).

Wave packets are neat because they exhibit "wave/particle duality." In highly linear situations (like a photon traveling through air), the coherent wavelike part of the wave-packets becomes the most driving part, and we see wave like mechanics (which we do see in photons traveling through air). In highly nonlinear situations (like when you use the photoelectric effect to generate said photon to fly through the air), the importance of the wavelike behaviors gets downplayed because there's too many non-linear effects. The importance of position begins to drive, and we see particle like mechanics (which we do see in photons emitted in this way).

A QM lesson in a nutshell, the famous "single photon double slit experiment" is so interesting because the creation of the light is best modeled as a photon (a particle), but its behavior in the rest of the setup is best modeled as a wave (a lightbeam), so both models break down and give bad predictions. Only the full QM waveform model is strong enough to properly predict the uncanny results of that experiment!

So what do we expect in a world based on harmonics? This says that a "consistent" world with an emphasis on harmonics will avoid non-linearity. You won't see a hard wall (like the echo-y concrete surfaces of an underground tunnel). You'll see soft walls which seek to minimize the non-lineary of the situation (nuclear submarines are coated with a rubbery surface whose job is to minimize the nonlinearity between the water and their hull, so they make fewer echos). You would not find people discussing the truthood or falsehood of ideas, but rather find them discussing the harmony of ideas, and balance.

So, given these general principles that lead to a world dominated by harmonics, what might your particular questions yield:

Issue 1: Vibration Q. If the impact of sound causes vibrations that in turn can cause sound, how might you limit the ripple effects to maintain a functional world? The concept of "impact" you are looking for implies a non-linearity. Accordingly, you would see more of those submarine style surfaces which damp the ripples.

Issue 2: Scale Q. If a drum can influence the world, surely a volcano or a thunder storm are even more exciting than normal. Controlling for scale seems important, but how to codify such a control?

There are two scales in mind: size and loudness. Loudness would be a simple issue to control: louder things do more. Your intuition for soundwaves would be sufficient for this.

The issue of drums size vs. a volcano's size gets interesting, because theoretically it only matters in one place: its hard to generate high harmonics with a large object, and hard to generate low harmonics with a small object. You would expect to see different "flavors" of effects.

What makes drum/volcano interesting to me is that it starts rapping on the edges of the wave/particle duality issue. If the world is perfectly linear, its size matters little. However, such worlds are not very realistic nor fun for readers. In a world which is simply more linear than ours, emphasizing harmonics more, there are still some nonlinearities. This leads to something which has been found important in many worldviews: a drum usually is drown out by a volcano, but a drum struck with the right feeling and in the perfectly right place can shift the world. I would expect that, in a harmonious world, there are fewer places which such nonlinearity can be exploited, and they have less of an effect. However, they would exist, or else drums would be a far less interesting part of your story.

As a clear example: if you beat a drum and nobody is around to hear it, does it have a large effect? Now do the same beating of the drum in a crowd, it has a much larger effect. Clearly the presence of people causes these non-linearities to become important.

Issue 3: Animals Q. Many animals make appealing noises and sounds, and it can be assumed in such a world that the number of animals who adapt to exploit the harmonic nature of the world would increase. What impact might that have on a broader sense? I'm envisioning a murder of crows being a truly frightening sight.

This could actually go either way, depending on how you want to sell your story. In one direction, you could argue that the sound of crows is very discordant, so its effects would be more poignant in a world that is highly reliant on harmony. In the other direction, you could argue that these crows exist in this new harmonious world, not our world, and the crows would probably have a commensurately harmonious sound (generating the same feeling of cacophony we feel in our world by emitting a more harmonious sound received by ears that demand more harmony).


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .