Sunday, September 7, 2008

Singing Sands—Nature’s Boom Boxes

[Singing sands] at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms—Marco Polo, 13th Century Explorer

Certain sand dunes, particularly when disturbed, will occasionally emit a loud, low-pitch rumble that lasts up to 15 minutes and can be heard up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) away. Some dunes are known to do it regularly, even daily. The sounds have been variously described as roaring or booming, singing and musical (e.g., kettle drum, zither, tambourine, bass violin, and a trumpet). They have also been compared with the sound of a foghorn or low-flying propeller-driven aircraft . You can listen to them here, or here.

This phenomenon was reported from the Middle East for more than 1500 years and appears in Chinese literature from as early as the ninth century. Marco Polo was convinced that evil spirits caused them.

According to Kenneth Chang of the N.Y. Times, “The dunes at Sand Mountain in Nevada sing a note of low C, two octaves below middle C. In the desert of Mar de Dunas in Chile, the dunes sing slightly higher, an F, while the sands of Ghord Lahmar in Morocco are higher yet, a G sharp.”

"Singing dunes constitute one of the most puzzling and impressive natural phenomenon I have ever encountered," Bruno Andreotti, scientist at the University of Paris, told LiveScience writer Michael Schirber. To try and uncover the underlying nature of these mysterious sounds, Andreotti took equipment out to the Atlantic Sahara in Morocco, one of only 35 known places where the mysterious natural music can be heard. Andreotti and his team studied one of the large crescent-shaped dunes, or barchans, which spontaneously sings all year long - sometimes two or three times an afternoon, if windy enough.

Singing sand, whistling sand or barking sand is sand that produces sounds of either high or low frequency under pressure. The sound emission is usually triggered by wind passing over dunes or by walking on the sand. The sound is generated by shear stress.
Certain conditions have to come together to create singing sand:
  • The sand grains have to be round and between 0.1 and 0.5 mm in diameter
  • The sand has to contain silica
  • The sand needs to be a certain humidity
The most common frequency emitted seems to be close to 450 Hz.
All sound-producing desert dune sands are medium grained, and very well sorted to well sorted, but so are many non-musical desert sands. The sand must be dry, because as little as 0.1% moisture makes a marked difference in sound producing capability, and 1% moisture permits only feeble sound production.

It was earlier suggested that the sound is produced by a piezo-electric effect: the production of electrical currents by quartz grains under mechanical stress. It was more recently shown that a booming sound is produced by the internal shearing of sand grains during avalanche down a dune slope. The overriding of superjacent layers of sand grains provides the energy of sound production. Others have since suggested "that two independent mechanisms must be at work ...squeaking sand suggests a simple mechanical explanation of sound production both wet and dry sand. Sound production of booming sand appears to be related to mechanical coupling between grains".

Whatever internal mechanisms exist, if sand of an appropriate grain-size and smoothness is naturally or artificially put into motion, sound will emanate and will in some instances provide an observer with vibrations which can be felt through the body.

The relative rarity of booming desert sands throughout the world indicates that they form or exist under special and limited conditions. The main requirement for the production of sound by desert sands is likely an ability for the wind to produce well-rounded, extremely smooth, frosted sand grains. Check here for a list of singing dunes in North America, with good descriptions.

Apparantly, a dune isn’t even necessary to cause the “singing”, according to a team of scientists from the United States, France and Morocco who say that “collisions between sand grains cause the motions of the grains to become synchronized. The outer layer of the dune vibrates like the cone of a loudspeaker. The particular note depends primarily on the size of the grains.” (N.Y. Times, 2006). The scientists shipped sand from a Moroccan desert to a Paris laboratory and reproduced the singing by pushing the sand around with a metal blade.

The most beautiful dune tune comes from the sands of Oman according to Dr. Stéphane Douady of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “Very pure sound,” Dr. Douady said. “This one is really singing.”


Fairbridge, R. W. 1968. Encyclopedia of geomorphology. New York: Reinhold Book Corporation.

Haff, D. K. 1979. Booming sands of the Mojave Desert and the Basin and Range Province, California. Caltech Internal Report NSF PHY7683685. 26 p.

Humphries, D. W. 1966. The booming sand of Korizo, Sahara, and the squeaking sand of Gower, South Wales -- A comparison of the fundamental characteristics of two musical sands. Sedimentology. 6: 135-152.

F. Nori, P. Sholtz, and M. Bretz, “Sound Producing Sand Avalanches” in Scientific American Vol. 277, No. 3, p. 84 (September 1997):

Lindsay, J. F., D. R. Criswell, T. L. Criswell, and B. S. Criswell. 1976. Sound-producing dune and beach sands. Geological Society of America Bulletin. 87(3):463-473. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America (GSA), March 1976.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Bobbi said...

Great post! I LOVE the Dunecat - those blue, blue eyes are so appropriate!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

The Singing Sands were something I hadn't heard about, but took great pleasure in reading your post about it. Loved the Dunecat. I've read six 'Dune' books myself.

Nina Munteanu said...

Isn't that dunecat something else? Glad you liked the post, Bobbi!

Jean-luc, I didn't realize there were that many Dune books out there! I just read the first two. And watched the movie--not sure which version; apparently there are several versions out.

Anonymous said...

How did you happen to come across "singing sands"? Research for your next novel? A short story? Not something that one would come across on a day-to-day basis living in the west coast rainforest of North America...
Baby Brie

Nina Munteanu said...

Hey, Baby Brie! Nice to see ya here again. Yeah, you're right--this isn't your normal piece of information that one comes across in this part of the world. We are as far away from the desert that one can be: being in the temporal coastal rainforest biome... LOL! Well, you're partially right; I was researching this topic for a novel (my trilogy about a galactic detective--soon to be published hopefully) but that research was a while ago. I came across it again because of my previous post on sailing rocks here:

All I know is that I now really want to go visit the sands of Oman!

Footsteps said...

Always something interesting here...! I'll be aiming for those N. American dunes next time I'm in proximity out west.

SF Girl said...

Ya, me too, Heather! Lots of singing to be done... :)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Nina, I think there might be more than six books. I know I've read that many.

SFgirl said...

Didn't they make a TV series from them?

blackburn1 said...

Wow, three weeks of great posts to catch up on.

Singing sands... I'd never think of something like that in a hundred years. And the Dunecat is hilarious. =]

SF Girl said...

HAR! Isn't nature just wonderful? I don't have to go very far for material for my science fiction stories. In fact, I used this information to describe a planet in my trilogy series (hopefully coming out soon)...singing sands... racing rocks... what next?