David Tourtellot: A Musical Perspective of Sonar, July 24, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

David Tourtellot

Aboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson

July 9-26, 2018

Mission:  Hydrographic Survey – Approaches to Houston

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 24th, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 29°09.1270’N

Longitude: 093°46.5544’W

Visibility: 5 Nautical Miles

Sky Condition: 8/8

Wind: Direction: 70.1°, Speed: 13.3 knots


Seawater: 29.24°C

Air: Dry bulb:26.9°C          Wet bulb: 24.7°C


Science and Technology Log

Coming to NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, I was eager to learn all I could about sonar. I am amazed that we have the ability to explore the ocean floor using sound.

uncharted wreck

An uncharted wreck discovered by NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson

Over the course of my previous blog entries, I have described the tools and processes used to survey using sonar. This time, I am going to try to frame the sounds that the sonars are using in a musical context, in the hope that doing so will help students (and myself) better understand the underlying concepts.

Note – many aspects of music are not standardized. For the purpose of this blog post, all musical tuning will be in equal temperament, at A=440. When I reference the range of a piano, I will be referencing a standard 88-key instrument. Many of the sonar frequencies do not correspond exactly to an in-tune pitch, so they have been written to the nearest pitch, with a comment regarding if the true frequency is higher or lower than the one written.

In sonar and in music, when considering soundwaves it is important to know their frequency, a measure of how many waves occur over the course of a set period of time. Frequency is measured in a unit called Hertz (abbreviated as Hz), which measures how many soundwaves occur in one second. One Hertz is equal to one soundwave per second. For example, if you heard a sound with a frequency of 100Hz, your ears would be detecting 100 soundwaves every second. Musicians also are concerned with frequency, but will use another name for it: pitch. These words are synonymous – sounds that are higher in pitch are higher in frequency, and sounds that are lower in pitch are lower in frequency.

Below are the eight octaves of the note A that are found on a piano, each labeled with their frequency. The notes’ frequencies have an exponential relationship – as you move from low to high by octave, each note has a frequency that is double that of its predecessor.

Piano As with frequencies

The frequency of each A on a piano

The highest note on a piano, C, has a frequency of 4186.01Hz

Highest Note on a piano

The frequency of the highest note on a piano

Average, healthy young humans hear sounds ranging from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. All sounds outside of that range are inaudible to people, but otherwise no different from sounds that fall within the human range of hearing. The highest note we would be able to hear would be an E♭, at a frequency of 19,912.16Hz (a frequency of exactly 20,000Hz would fall in between E♭ and E♮, though would be closer to E♭). If put on a musical staff, it would look like this:

High Eb 19kHz

The frequency of the highest note in the human range of hearing

The hull of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is equipped with several sonar transmitters and receivers, which can operate at a wide variety of frequencies.

TJ Sonar

The hull of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, with several sonars. Note that the projectors that transmit lower frequencies are larger than the ones that transmit higher frequencies. This is similar to musical instruments – instruments that make lower sounds, like the tuba or the double bass, are larger than instruments that make higher sounds, like the trumpet or the violin

Higher frequencies provide higher resolution returns for the sonar, but they dissipate more quickly as they travel through water than lower frequencies do. Surveyors assess the depth of the water they are surveying, and choose the frequency that will give them the best return based on their conditions. Most of the sonar frequencies are too high for humans to hear. The ship’s multi-beam echo sounder has a variable frequency range of 200,000Hz-400,000Hz, though as I’ve been on board they’ve been scanning with it at 300,000Hz. Likewise, the multi-beam sonars on the launches have also been running at 300,000Hz. The ship has a sub-bottom profiler, which is a sonar used for surveying beneath the seafloor. It operates at a frequency of 12,000Hz, and has the distinction of being the only sonar on the ship that is audible to humans, however, we have not had a need to use it during my time aboard the Thomas Jefferson.

The ship’s side scan towfish (which I described in my previous blog entry) operates at 455,000Hz.

Here, we can see what those frequencies would look like if they were to be put on a musical staff.

Assorted Sonars and reference pitches

The frequencies of sonar, with reference pitches

Altering the frequency isn’t the only way to affect the quality of the reading which the sonar is getting. Surveyors can also change the pulse of the sonar. The pulse is the duration of the ping. To think about it in musical terms, changing the pulse would be akin to switching from playing quarter notes to playing half notes, while keeping the tempo and pitch the same. Different sonar pulses yield different readings. Shorter pulses provide higher resolution, but like higher frequency pings, dissipate faster in water, whereas longer pulses provide lower resolution, but can reach greater depths.

Personal Log

Mariners have a reputation for being a rather superstitious bunch, so I decided to ask around to see if that held true for the crew of the Thomas Jefferson. Overall, I found that most didn’t strictly adhere to any, but they were happy to share some of their favorites.

Everyone I spoke to told me that it is considered bad luck to leave port on a Friday, though the Commanding Officer, CDR Chris van Westendorp, assured me that you could counteract that bad luck by making three 360° turns to the left as soon as the ship is able. Many on the crew are also avid fishermen, and told me that bringing bananas aboard would lead to a bad catch, and one went so far as to be mistrustful of yellow lighters as well.

Certain tattoos are said to bring good luck – I was told that sailors often have a chicken and a pig tattooed on their feet. According to custom, those animals were often stored in wooden crates that would float if a ship went down, and having them tattooed onto you would afford you the same benefit. When asked if he was superstitious one of our helmsmen Jim proudly showed me a tattoo he has of a dolphin. He explained that having a sea creature tattooed on your body would prevent drowning. “It works!” he said with a grin, “I’ve never drowned!”

Several maritime superstitions deal with foul weather. Umbrellas are said to cause bad weather, as is split pea soup. Whistling while on the bridge is said to “whistle in the winds.” While not a superstition per se, many crew members told me variations of the same meteorological mantra: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

One of the NOAA Corps Officers aboard, ENS Garrison Grant, knew several old superstitions related to shipbuilding. When laying the keel (the first piece of the ship to be put into place), shipbuilders would scatter evergreen boughs and tie red ribbons around it to ward off witches. Historically, having women aboard was considered bad luck, though, conversely it was said that if they showed their bare breasts to a storm, it would subside. This is why several ancient ships had topless women carved into the masthead. Legend has it that in order to assure that a ship would float, when it was ready to be launched for the first time, virgins would be tied to the rails that guided the ship from the ship yard into the water. The weight of the ship would crush them, and their blood would act as a lubricant, allowing the ship to slide into the water for the first time. Yikes! Thankfully, as society became more civilized, this practice evolved into the custom of breaking a bottle of champagne against a ship’s bow!

Did you know? Musical instruments play an important role in ship safety! In accordance with maritime law, ships will use auditory cues to make other vessels aware of their presence in heavy fog. For large ships, this includes the ringing of a gong at regular intervals.

Latest Highlight: During this week’s fire drill, I got to try the fire hose. It was very powerful and a lot of fun!

David Tourtellot during a fire drill

David Tourtellot during a fire drill

One response to “David Tourtellot: A Musical Perspective of Sonar, July 24, 2018

  1. Hi David, I’ve loved reading your blog! It sounds like you’ve had a fantastic experience aboard the Thomas Jefferson. I’m sure you’ll enjoy sharing your experiences with your students and fellow music teachers back in Lee’s Summit. Would you be interested in sharing your experiences with the Lee’s Summit Retired Teachers group on the first Wednesday of the month in February 2019? We’d love to have you:) Please e-mail me at kim.fritchie@lsr7.net when you return. Thanks!

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