Academics is often a visual pursuit – reading journal articles, examining manuscripts, looking through a microscope. But some things can only be learned through sound. The boom of volcanoes, buzz of mosquito wings or tone of a person’s voice all convey information lost to a visual observer. The challenge in all of these is learning how to make sense of the sounds around us, in some cases with technology and in others by simply listening to one another more carefully.

Beyond helping us interact with the world and with each other, sound can be an almost physical tool. Frequencies beyond the range of human hearing can wake up sleeping appliances and arrange heart cells in the lab. Sound waves can even be a means of peering into the body and diagnosing health conditions.

Stanford scholars from across medicine, engineering, social sciences and the arts are working together to interpret and manipulate this audible world, and to restore hearing to those whose ability is diminished. They’re even helping people learn to listen more carefully to each other.

Editor’s note: This page was first published July 2, 2018 and has been updated with new content.

(Image credit: Rob Dunbar)

Listening for reef health

Vast amounts of energy flow around the ocean as waves, tides and currents, eventually impacting coasts, including coral reefs that provide food, income and coastal protection to more than 500 million people. This water movement is foundational to reef success, bringing nutrients and food and removing waste.

Using soundwave-based technologies, Stanford scientists demonstrated that measuring the physics of just a small portion of reef with a single instrument can reveal insights about the health of an entire reef system. The findings point to low-cost methods for scaling up monitoring efforts of these enigmatic living structures, which are at risk of devastation in a changing climate.

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Video by Farrin Abbott

New research shows that physics measurements of just a small portion of reef can be used to assess the health of an entire reef system. The findings may help scientists grasp how these important ecosystems will respond to a changing climate.

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Sound learning

The world is filled with pinging, buzzing, reverberating sounds that carry information. Rumblings that portend a volcano; underground vibrations elephants use to communicate; jet plane noises that, if quieted, could also improve power production from wind farms. This is some of the work underway at Stanford in which researchers are probing the world by listening:

Undersea origins of Earth’s mysterious Love waves

Supercomputer simulations of planetary-scale interactions show how ocean storms and the structure of Earth’s upper layers together generate much of the world’s seismic waves. Decoding the faint but ubiquitous vibrations known as Love waves could yield insights about Earth’s storm history, changing climate and interior.

AI detects hidden earthquakes

Tiny movements in Earth’s outermost layer may provide a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the physics and warning signs of big quakes. New algorithms that work a little like human vision are now detecting these long-hidden microquakes in the growing mountain of seismic data.

First-ever recording of a blue whale’s heart rate

With a lot of ingenuity and a little luck, researchers monitored the heart rate of a blue whale in the wild. The measurement suggests that blue whale hearts are operating at extremes – and may limit the whale’s size.

A tiny tweak could steer wind power in the right direction

Researchers show that angling turbines slightly away from the wind can boost the overall energy produced and even out the otherwise variable supply.

Realistic sounds for computer animation

Sounds accompanying computer-animated content are usually created with recordings. Now, a new system synthesizes synchronized sound at the push of a button.

Stanford scientists eavesdrop on volcanic rumblings to forecast eruptions

Sound waves generated by burbling lakes of lava atop some volcanoes could provide advance warning to people who live near active volcanoes.

How modeling air turbulence can improve wind farm performance

Techniques for making fast-flying aircraft quieter could pay off with higher power output from wind farms.

Stanford scientists develop ‘Shazam for earthquakes’

A new algorithm designed to find matching seismic signals in large earthquake databases could find previously missed microquakes.

Stanford scientists use ocean waves to monitor oil and gas fields

New technique exploits naturally occurring seismic waves to probe seafloor at less expense, and with fewer ill effects on marine life caused by air guns in use today.

Sounds of the sea

Students in Music 220A build and test hydrophones to capture whale and marine sounds, in addition to learning techniques for digital sound synthesis, analysis, effects and reverberation.

Earthquake acoustics can indicate if a massive tsunami is imminent

Acoustic characteristics of the 2011 Japan earthquake indicated that it would cause a large tsunami. The technique could be applied worldwide to create an early warning system for massive tsunamis.

‘Orca ears’ inspire Stanford researchers to develop ultrasensitive undersea microphone

A powerful hydrophone based on ears of orcas could help researchers studying everything from whale migration to fisheries populations.

Caller ID in the wild: Elephants hear underground

In the vast expanse of African grasslands, wild herds of migrating elephants have learned to communicate with each other by listening with their feet to vibrations in the ground.

(Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Deliberate discussion

As Americans grapple with how to tackle some of the country’s most pressing problems, coming together to address those challenges is critical. But in an atmosphere where partisan tensions run deep, is that even possible? Under the right conditions, Stanford scholars James Fishkin and Larry Diamond think so.

Fishkin and Diamond have been refining a method called Deliberative Polling, a technique that Fishkin first started exploring in 1988 as a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The approach brings people from varied backgrounds together for a moderated discussion about issues that members of the general public say matter to them. Participants are asked to put their political labels aside and to instead consider the different sides of an argument.

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Kurt Hickman

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Sound tools

Invisible sound waves carry a physical force. They rattle against inner ear cells to create the sensation of sound, and similar waves can trigger devices to turn on, detect hidden tumors or even probe the seafloor. These waves hold power well beyond what we can hear.

Adding sound to quantum simulations

Aiming to emulate the quantum characteristics of materials more realistically, researchers have figured out a way to create a lattice of light and atoms that can vibrate – bringing sound to an otherwise silent experiment.

Combining light and sound to see underwater

The “Photoacoustic Airborne Sonar System” could be installed beneath drones to enable aerial underwater surveys and high-resolution mapping of the deep ocean.

A better way to detect underground water leaks

Stanford researchers propose a new way to locate water leaks within the tangle of aging pipes found beneath many cities. The improvement could save time, money and billions of gallons of water.

Quantum microphone counts particles of sound

A device that eavesdrops on the quantum whispers of atoms could form the basis of a new type of quantum computer.

Developing technologies that run on light

Researchers are designing a nanoscale photon diode – a necessary component that could bring us closer to faster, more energy-efficient computers and communications that replace electricity with light.

New method for waking up devices

A device that’s turned off doesn’t suck battery life, but it also doesn’t work. Now a low-power system that’s always on the alert can turn devices on when they are needed, saving energy in the networked internet of things.

Rapid screening for bacterial infections

Researchers in medicine, engineering and business are developing a way of diagnosing deadly bacterial blood infections that’s more efficient than current techniques. They aim to speed up treatment while avoiding antibiotic resistance.

Social media listeners

Across the vastness of the internet, there are countless disease support groups where ill people share questions, advice and hope. In some cases, these online conversations could reveal unreported adverse reactions to approved drugs.

Acoustic choreography

Sound waves can nudge heart cells in a lab dish into any configuration, including packing them densely to mimic the human heart.

Ultrasound solution

A new type of ultrasound can shrink tumors in kids.

Ultrasound and microbubbles flag malignant cancer in humans

A Stanford-led team of researchers has developed tiny bubbles that bind to malignant tumors, making them visible to ultrasound imaging.

New ‘tricorder’ technology might be able to ‘hear’ tumors growing

A new technology has promise to safely find buried plastic explosives and maybe even spot fast-growing tumors. The technique involves the clever interplay of microwaves and ultrasound to develop a detector like the Star Trek tricorder.

Stanford engineers develop tiny, sound-powered chip to serve as medical device

Using ultrasound to deliver power wirelessly, Stanford researchers are working on a new generation of medical devices that would be planted deep inside the body to monitor illness, deliver therapies and relieve pain.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Brain stethoscope

Over many years, Stanford neurologists have been working with a specialist in computer music to develop a brain stethoscope – not a stethoscope per se, but rather an algorithm that translates the brain’s electrical activity into sounds.

That same team has shown that medical students and nurses – non-specialists, in other words – can listen to the brain stethoscope and reliably detect so-called silent seizures – a neurological condition in which patients have epileptic seizures without any of the associated physical convulsions.

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Kurt Hickman

Stanford researchers have developed a “brain stethoscope” that can help detect non-convulsive epileptic seizures.

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Understanding through listening

It’s one thing to hear and another to listen. The act of listening and communicating can help ease troubled relationships, steer medical decisions and even bring the past to life. But it’s not always easy, which is why some researchers are trying to unravel how we listen and why it’s so important.

Recipes From the “Communication Kitchen:” How to Handle 3 Common Challenges This Holiday Season

In this podcast episode, we share strategies for surviving small talk as well as 10 of our favorite “recipes” from past guests.

JackTrip software allows musicians to sync performances online

A longstanding software program for online music playing has been optimized for slower, home-based internet connections.

Fighting isolation with the art of design and computer music

Ge Wang, associate professor of music who specializes in the art of design and computer music, is hosting a free, public, multi-format weekly series designed to help people through the remoteness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuning in to philosophy, humanities during the pandemic

With the 500th episode of the popular radio show Philosophy Talk approaching, program co-founder John Perry and current host Joshua Landy reflect on how philosophy, and the humanities broadly, can help during these turbulent times.

Babies love baby talk, all the world over

Stanford psychologist Michael Frank and collaborators conducted the largest ever experimental study of baby talk and found that infants respond better to baby talk versus normal adult chatter.

Brain response to mom’s voice differs in kids with autism

Mom’s voice causes a strong response in the brains of typically developing children, but the response is weaker in children with autism, a Stanford study has demonstrated.

Music and the mind

Famed lyric soprano Renée Fleming talks about the left-brain/right-brain initiative, which she launched with NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and about the connection between medicine and music.

Are you listening?

Modern medicine challenges the crucial bond between doctors and patients.

A relationship built on trust

One patient says a strong relationship with her doctor was crucial in finding success.

Stanford scholars discuss mental health and technology

Conversational software programs might provide patients a less risky environment for discussing mental health, but they come with some risks to privacy or accuracy. Stanford scholars discuss the pros and cons of this trend.

Stanford musicologist brings the 15th century to life

Stanford’s Jesse Rodin reanimates musical experiences of the distant past through performance.

Can your personality explain your iTunes playlist?

Researchers find a new way to examine your musical taste, with implications for the music and health care industries.

Mom’s voice activates many different regions in children’s brains

A far wider swath of brain areas is activated when children hear their mothers than when they hear other voices, and this brain response predicts a child’s social communication ability.

5 Questions: Ombudsperson Jim Laflin on the importance of listening

Jim Laflin, the “listener” for the School of Medicine, said in an interview that rather than advise people on what to do, he helps them to clarify and identify their options.

This is computer music: Ge Wang at TEDxStanford

Music made by laptops, smartphones and other technologies isn’t about the tech or even the music – it’s about understanding people.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Songs of giants

The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth. It’s also among the loudest.

Although whale songs have been studied for decades, researchers have had limited success in deciphering their meaning. Recently, by recording both individual whales and their greater populations in the Northeast Pacific, researchers from Stanford and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have identified patterns in the trills and bellows of blue whales that indicate when the animals are migrating from their feeding grounds off the North American coast to their breeding grounds off Central America.


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Restoring sound

Some people are born without the ability to hear, and adults older than 70 are more likely to have hearing loss than to have normal, healthy hearing. For those seeking help, better diagnosis and treatments are on the horizon both through improved technology and the possibility of one day regrowing damaged inner ear cells.

COVID-19 can infect the inner ear

A study in Communications Medicine links the coronavirus with hearing and balance disorders.

Biodesign and otolaryngology team up for hearing loss and other ear, nose, and throat challenges

A partnership is improving patient care in the field of otolaryngology by pairing Stanford Biodesign fellows with clinicians.

Misfiring from jittery neurons sets fundamental limit on perception

The ability to make fine visual discriminations between two stimuli runs up against a natural barrier created by large groups of “noisy” neurons behaving similarly.

A toxic lifesaver, reconstructed

A commonly prescribed antibiotic can also cause hearing loss. “If we can eventually prevent people from going deaf from taking these antibiotics, in my mind, we will be successful,” says otolaryngologist Tony Ricci.

Discovery in mice points to potential treatment for vestibular disorders

Researchers at Stanford have found a way to regenerate hair cells in the vestibular system of the mouse ear, with implications for treating dizziness.

To hear again

Birds regrow damaged inner ear cells. Why can’t we? The solution may lie in stem cells that can mature into functioning inner ear cells.

Hear and now

About two-thirds of adults over 70 have hearing loss, including Edwin Lutz, who takes less pleasure in being outside without the ability to hear nature’s sounds. New diagnoses and treatments in the works could help.

Stanford-developed probe aids study of hearing

By measuring minuscule forces within the inner ear, scientists are learning more about how humans hear.

Stanford hearing study upends 30-year-old belief on how humans perceive sound

A new study from Stanford otolaryngologists upends the way scientists think about how we hear – and the findings could fundamentally change the way doctors treat hearing loss.

Battling hearing loss on and off the battlefield

The loud blasts from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in war zones is causing an uptick in hearing loss among soldiers, but it turns out some of the damage is reversible.

Stanford scientist looks for a deeper understanding of hearing through the bones in our heads

Stanford mechanical engineer Sunil Puria is unraveling the mysteries of bone conduction hearing, which could lead to a better understanding of hearing – and some types of hearing loss.

‘What’s that?’ Identifying cells important to hearing loss

Stanford researcher and otolaryngologist Alan Cheng and colleagues have found the cells that mature into the hair cells responsible for detecting sound. This discovery could help restore those cells after hearing loss.