The Dynamics of the Himalayan Singing Bowl

February 01, 2012

Adi Mahara

Adi Mahara ’12 studies the acoustics of the Himalayan singing bowl. (Photo by Thomas Moore)

When most people listen to music, they aren’t usually giving much thought to the physics behind how each instrument creates each sound; they’re just enjoying the tune and the melody. But for Professor of Physics Thomas Moore, the notes resonating off a string or a drum are so much more than sounds; they are science coming to life.

Studying how sounds are created through instruments, especially unusual instruments with ancient origins, has been a longstanding passion of Moore, who has explored the physics of a dozen instruments from the Indian elephant bell to the Nigerian slit gong since 1999.

So, when Adi Mahara ’12, a physics major, approached Moore in 2010 about partnering for a Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship project on the Himalayan singing bowl, Moore was immediately intrigued. Cori Warren ’11 joined the team and the trio began their in-depth investigation of the instrument.

Singing bowls are metal alloy bowls that produce their sound by either being struck on the side or rubbed in a continuous motion around the edge of the bowl. Used primarily in therapy, meditation, and worship, these bowls date back to approximately 500 BCE in the Tibetan culture, and although their origins are in Tibet, these instruments are made and used in many countries around the world, including India, Mongolia, and China and are commonly referred to as Himalayan singing bowls.

They’re also used in Nepal, Mahara’s homeland and the place where he first heard the bowls used to make music.

“The purpose of the research was to experimentally investigate the dynamics of the singing bowl,” said Moore. “The experiments we performed were chosen so that we could determine the location of the nodes and antinodes with respect to the position of the puja, which is the wooden cylinder used to excite vibrations. We also measured the tangential and radial motion of the puja.”

Mahara began focusing on the physics of the bowl. “First we looked at a lot of data and wrote a theory about how it might work,” shared Mahara. “The research looks very simple but once you get into it, it's not so simple. It’s not as obvious as you might think.”

They looked at patterns and considered theories for what was driving the vibration. “Where the bowl vibrates in relations to where the stick is rubbing is extremely interesting,” said Moore.

After the summer came to a close and the team had completed their research report, they continued to analyze the data through the fall. “As with all of our research projects, it takes years to actually understand the physics and write the final research article,” said Moore, who anticipates a final publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal sometime in 2013.

“The work reported here has begun to provide insight into the complex mechanism of this seemingly simple musical instruments,” Mahara and Warren shared in their report. “It appears that the only published theory of this system does not completely model the experimental results and we will continue to investigate the system, focusing on the theory of the stick slip interaction and the relationship between the radial and the tangential component of motion.”

While the research the team performed can be applied to an understanding of break squeal and vibrations in automobiles, Moore feels strongly that the main goal of this research is not to justify it with application. “Anything that has to do with understanding vibration and the control of vibration is extremely important,” explained Moore, the author of several academic articles on similar topics. “The problem is interesting even without another application."

Mahara and Warren, who lost count of the number of hours they spent in the lab, couldn’t agree more.

By Kristen Manieri

Office of Marketing & Communications
For more information, contact

Copyright © 2012 Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, FL 32789  407.646.2000

News Archives: