Snail Sounds from Patterns

Christel Clerc & Nadja Tata

By Christel Clerc & Nadja Tata
10.12.2021 | 5 minutes reading time

In the project MuShell – Music of the Shell, students from the TU Berlin make the diversity of patterns in nature audible. Inspired by the visual association between cylinder music boxes and conical snails, they transform the patterns of snail shells from the mollusk collection into musical scores. In doing so, they open up a new sonic approach to the collection and create 3D models for creative reuse.

Sea snail <em>Oliva porphyria</em> in front and side view during the photo shooting for 3D digitization (photos: Christel Clerc / MfN)
Sea snail Oliva porphyria in front and side view during the photo shooting for 3D digitization (photos: Christel Clerc / MfN)

Project & Participants

Felix (M. Sc. Technical Environmental Protection), Julia (M. Sc. Biotechnology), Charlotte (B. Sc. Bioinformatics), Daniel (M. Sc. Technomathematics), Anton Michel (B. Sc. Chemistry) and Daniel El-Assal (B.Sc Media Technology) have two things in common: an interest in well-made science communication and a desire to make the diversity of visual patterns in our nature audible.

All six are taking part in the lab:prepare hands-on seminar, an experimental lab for science communication led by Dr. Robert Richter, a lecturer at TU Berlin, science communication expert and former staff member of the Mediasphere For Nature at the Museum für Naturkunde. This Project Sci.com course explores bidirectional communication between scientists, students and the public and is funded by the Berlin University Alliance .

Students of the course <em>lab:prepare</em> and MuShell team members (photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)
Students of the course lab:prepare and MuShell team members (photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)

When Robert introduced us to the students' concept MuShell - Music from Shells, we - the Mediasphere team - were especially happy to provide access to our collection “Molluska” for this experimental and creative approach.

From patterns to sounds

Inspired by the visual association between cylinder music boxes and conical snails, the students developed a concept that transforms the snails shell patterns into a sonic output. After creating 3D models of the cone and olive snails, the students digitally sonified the shell patterns in a complex procedure. More detailed biological and technical information about their complex process, challenges and results can be found in their blog post .

Snail music box for the presentation and exhibition &ldquo;Soft Encounters&rdquo; at the Floating University Berlin, October 2021, with illuminating LEDs of the selected strip. (Photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)
Snail music box for the presentation and exhibition “Soft Encounters” at the Floating University Berlin, October 2021, with illuminating LEDs of the selected strip. (Photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)

Composition of the Conus nussatella at the interactive station with a snail music box at the Floating University Berlin (Video: Christel Clerc / MfN)

Role of the Mediasphere

The Mediasphere For Nature is an application lab and sees itself as a bridge between the collection / collection-based media at the museum and the various user groups from the education sector, business, creative and media industries. For this project, the team coordinated access to the museum’s extensive mollusk collection with roughly 7 million objects and referred the project to collection manager Christine Zorn. Thanks to her expertise and advice, the students were able to make a more targeted selection of various cone snails (Conidae) and olive snails (Olividae) based on their patterns. The 13 predatory and sometimes highly venomous snails selected live on the bottoms of tropical and subtropical seas and are mostly from East Africa, the Red Sea, and the Indo-Pacific region.

Collection manager Christine Zorn advises Robert Richter and his students on snail selection and gives advice on safe handling of the shells. (Photo: Nadja Tata /MfN)
Collection manager Christine Zorn advises Robert Richter and his students on snail selection and gives advice on safe handling of the shells. (Photo: Nadja Tata /MfN)

Students selecting cone snails suitable for digitization (Photo: Nadja Tata / MfN)
Students selecting cone snails suitable for digitization (Photo: Nadja Tata / MfN)

<em>Conus aulicus</em>, princely cone snail, in its collection box (Photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)
Conus aulicus, princely cone snail, in its collection box (Photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)

In addition, the Mediasphere supported the students in presenting their work progress to the public in the form of tweets, a photo and video documentation and the opportunity to write their own blog article. Through an extensive exchange and various feedback rounds, the prospective scientists learn to communicate their project results, reflections and approaches to a broad audience in the form of visuals and texts.

Opening up the collection

The project also aims to make the 3D models obtained from the students' inquiry-driven discovery process available to the public via the museum’s data portal in 2022, promoting a creative reuse. Parts of the shell pattern sounds and compositions will also be published in the data portal.

This will allow many more users to admire and research the diversity of our snail collection as well as the unique patterns. The students are involved in the development of the collection and thus indirectly familiarized with the working methods and processes of a research museum.

<em>Conus aulicus</em> during photogrammetry shooting in the light box built by the students themselves (Photo: Nadja Tata / MfN)
Conus aulicus during photogrammetry shooting in the light box built by the students themselves (Photo: Nadja Tata / MfN)

Collection rooms as educational spaces

The project supports the educational mission of museums and also makes its collection available to the next generation of non-natural scientists, e.g. for learning relevant science communication. In this way, the Mediasphere For Nature makes an important contribution to breaking down the barriers between research/science and the public. With the media in our data portal, we want to attract a broad and diverse audience, both scientific and creative, to the treasures of the collection and the wonders of nature.

Two students check the photo quality in the mollusk collection (Photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)
Two students check the photo quality in the mollusk collection (Photo: Christel Clerc / MfN)

Sensual & aesthetic approaches to natural history collections.

With their compositions, the students create media that make the visible audible. This creates new and unusual perspectives on the museum’s historically evolved and scientifically dominated collection. The compositions can be utilized in other contexts, such as for teaching the visually impaired about the diversity of patterns in nature. In addition, the compositions can be incorporated into other aesthetic projects, such as performative arts or art installations. Low-threshold access to collection-based media and our events (such as the Your Ocean Sound music hackathon in spring 2021) will stimulate engagements with nature that may inspire the production of artworks or performances. The collection objects themselves do not leave their boxes but flow into contemporary society in their diverse forms, colors, patterns, and with their historical backgrounds.