Spin Masters

In searching for patterns that would differentiate one species of webspinners from the next, Professor Janice Edgerly-Rooks wondered: What if you put their steps to music? Would you be able to hear the differences?

The thing about webspinners is they’re hard to tell apart: There are virtually no visible differences between many of the hundreds of species, making evolutionary questions hard to address. In an effort to distinguish one webspinner from the next, Professor Janice Edgerly-Rooks quantified their spin-steps. Would different patterns emerge? Would related species share patterns?

“Individuals of one species spun approximately 9,000 spin steps in the hour we filmed them,” Edgerly-Rooks says. Looking at the frequency of certain steps, the probability of going from one step to the other, she wondered, “How the heck do you analyze such complex data?”

As a trained vocalist, it dawned on Edgerly-Rooks: “What if I listened to the data?”

With the help of her biology students—many of whom are also musicians—Edgerly-Rooks translated the webspinners’ steps into music notes. For instance, coded for the keyboard, with middle C as the starting point, the step pattern of the right foot went higher in pitch while the left foot went down. “It was beautiful,” she says of the resulting music. “When I reflected on that, I realized it was because when you write a melody, you’re not jumping all across the scales, the notes tend to be near each other. And that’s how [these insects] spin silk. They do it in a nice little sequence.”

What they were doing is sonification, or using sound to perceptualize data. “Our brains are very good at understanding slight variations in sound,” unlike in visuals, she says. Since then, webspinner steps have been played on the violin by Byron Fan ’18; composer Elizabeth Jonasson ’20 wrote five moments based on the data; and associate professor of music Bruno Ruviaro produced an original composition using percussion instruments and electronic sounds.

Sonification of Webspinners, Fifth Movement
By Elizabeth Jonasson ’20

Composer Elizabeth Jonasson ’20 wrote five movements based on the data counting embiopteran spin steps as part of an internship with the REAL Program out of the College of Arts and Sciences. Video of web spinner provided by Janice Edgerly-Rooks.

While new music keeps being spun, Edgerly-Rooks continues to speak at conferences and symposiums about the power of finding connections between art and science. At one engagement, she recalls, “One man came up and told me how touched he was by the use of music to understand nature.”

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