How to Listen to Light

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Introduction: How to Listen to Light

About: I've built some weird stuff over the years, but most of that stuff has remained unseen by the world outside of me and a few friends. But then one day, one of these friends, he says to me, "Hey Jack, you shoul…

The human eye cannot discern flicker with a frequency greater than roughly 30 Hz. A light turning on and off faster than this does not appear to be turning on and off. Instead it appears to have a constant intensity to the eye.

Human ears however are much faster, that is, better able to perceive a signal changing quickly in time. The human ear can detect frequencies from roughly 20 Hz to 20 000 Hz, provided those frequencies arrive as sound.

Now suppose there were an easy way to change light of time-varying intensity, into sound of time varying intensity. Then you could "hear" light that was flickering too fast for you to see it.

The humble silicon solar-cell can convert a time-varying light signal into a time-varying electrical signal. This small electrical signal can then be fed to an audio signal amplifier and converted into sound.

Step 1: Parts:

1 audio amplifier (Radio Shack Catalog #:277-1008)
1 1/8-inch (3mm) headphone plug, can be mono or stereo
1 small Silicon solar cell with approximately 1 cm2 in area
1 1/2-inch PVC pipe cap
some wire, solder, epoxy, black paint, etc.

Step 2: Assemble and Wire Up the Light Sensor.

The wiring diagram, first pic in the stack below, shows how to wire the solar cell to a mono audio plug, or how to do the same trick with a stereo plug. Basically for the case of a stereo plug, it is wired up so that electrically it's a mono plug.

In words the tip of a mono audio plug is named "tip", and the ring shaped conductor behind the tip is named "ring". I have connected the positive side of the solar panel to tip, and the negative side to ring. In the little picture in the wiring diagram, ring is labeled with a "1".

The second pic in the stack below shows the actual wiring itself.

You might be wondering what kind of dark magic was necessary to turn that messy box of solar panel shards, shown in step one, into the pretty little perfect circle which will fit neatly inside a 1/2-inch PVC pipe cap. The answer is shown in step 3, sort of, and step 3 is optional.

You see, working with little solar panel shards is kind of a pain in the ass, and I don't recommend you do this unless
(a) You're a masochist - that is, you like pain and frustration
(b) You don't have a pre-made solar cell that will neatly fit inside the light shield

By the way, the "light shield" is another name for the PVC pipe cap. It's intended to block out stray light. In step 4 I paint it black, for extra super-duper light blocking ability.

Step 3: (OPTIONAL STEP) Cutesy Recycled Circuit Board Circles!

Uh... lets see... This step involved: De-soldering parts from a junk circuit board. Cutting off a piece of depopulated board with a radial arm saw. Using a hole saw to cut out some little circles. Then attaching the circles to a bolt, and loading this bolt into the drill press, for purposes of slimming down the circles, decreasing their radii by placing a file against their edge, while the drill press is spinning them. Then sanding the paint off the little circles by rubbing them against a sheet of sandpaper held to a clipboard.

Then I carefully broke off a piece of solar panel shard. Then carefully soldered it to one of the little circle boards I made, and then I soldered some wires to the appropriate places on the panel.

Verily, this is the story of the genesis of the little circular solar-cell board seen in Step 2.

Step 4: Gluing and Painting

The purpose of the little PVC pipe cap enclosure is twofold.

One is that it offers some mechanical protection for the solar cell, which is kinda delicate. So the board and wiring are glued in place with epoxy.

The other purpose is to block out light coming from most directions. So I do like the old Stones song suggests, and paint it black.

Step 5: Test the Light Sensor (in DC Mode)

This is just a quick test to see if the light sensor is working, not wired up backwards, etc.

I switch my multimeter in small-dc-current mode, then connect the probes to the audio plug and see what happens.

It looks like the light from the fixtures above is causing the solar cell to produce about 20 microamps of current.

This is good.

Step 6: Plug It In. Turn It On.

The plug from the light sensor goes to jack on the audio-amplifier labeled "INPUT".

Then turn the turn the little gain/volume knob on the side to turn it on.

Also important: the amplifier should have a 9V battery installed in it, or a power source of some kind.
;-)

Step 7: Various Light Sources

Many artificial forms of light vary in intensity with frequencies in the audio region. Some examples include incandescent light bulbs, LED displays on microwave ovens and other kitchen appliances, computer monitors, TV-remotes, etc.

Provided you've put everything together correctly, you will hear some kind of sound coming out of the amplifier when the solar cell is receiving light from a time-varying source.

In case all you have are non-varying "DC" sources of light, like sunlight, try waving your hand back-and-forth in front of the solar cell, quickly blocking and unblocking the light reaching it. This should produce a soft clicking noise at each dark-to-light, light-to-dark, transition.

Step 8: LED "tea Light" Candles Play Music for Some Reason

Seriously.

Just place the light sensor near the LED candle and in many cases you'll hear cheap electronic music coming out the amplifier. The one in the picture below plays "Fur Elise".

It is also possible to tap into these little LED candles and listen to the music via wire, as shown in this instructable:
https://www.instructables.com/id/Listen-to-a-led-tea-light/

I suspect that the reason for this is that those mass-produced music chips also work well as a source of time varying "flicker". That is, this signal looks like flickering light when driving an LED. The same signal sounds like cheap electronic music when driving a speaker. The same chips are used for both, or at least that's what I suspect. If anyone can confirm this hypothesis via a source in the Chinese knick-knack industry, please comment.

Step 9: Some Captured Sound Samples

For those of you who asked for them, I captured some sound samples from the light-to-sound project. These are uncompressed .wav files, sampled at 44 KHz and 16 bits per sample. Each is roughly 10s in duration.

I realize downsampling to a lower sampling rate, and/or encoding to a compressed format (like mp3) would certainly save y'all some space, and download time. But this might also introduce artifacts into the sound that weren't there in the first place, and I'm trying to be scientific about this, sorta.

Update 20 Nov, 2009: This additional step was added on 20 Nov, 2009, about a 1+1/2 years after the bulk of this instructable was published. Sorry it took so long. I don't have a good excuse for this.

Update: 27 Feb, 2021: The LED candle melody, which I previously called, "unknown melody," is actually a Chinese pop song, titled 老鼠爱大米, which roughly translates to "mouse loves rice." Credit goes to member whc2001 for letting me know this in the comments.
Numerous versions of 老鼠爱大米 can be found in the usual places, e.g. Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQJGzcy13ls), and other tubes(https://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNDUyMzc3NzY5Ng==.html), or even MuseScore(https://musescore.com/sheetmusic?text=mouse%20loves%20rice), just by searching for it via the string "老鼠爱大米" or "mouse loves rice." This song has lyrics too, so you can sing along, if you want to. This is difficult for me, but probably easy for anyone who understands Chinese. Maybe too easy, if this is the kind of song with earworm potential (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm) ; i.e. the type of catchy, memorable song that get stuck in one's head for days at a time.

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    44 Comments

    0
    whc2001
    whc2001

    8 weeks ago

    I am guessing they just used cheap premade melody ICs since the staccato (gaps between notes, the loud bang between two sounds in your recording) just shuts the output off, resulting the LED connected to speaker output to dim completely. The gap is short so the LED just flickers. Notes are mostly more than 1KHz (I assume the melody IC is designed to be used with a piezo buzzer since it matches their frequency response), thus the LED just appears to be on by human eyes most of the time. Also, the unknown song is a Chinese pop "老鼠爱大米", I had a toy lantern which played the exact same monotonic version of that song. Guess next time when I need an LED flickering effect I can just grab an arduino and spin up the "toneMelody" sketch ;)

    1
    Jack A Lopez
    Jack A Lopez

    Reply 7 weeks ago

    Hey! Wow! Thank you! Your comment informed me about some things I wanted to know.

    First of all, I had been wondering about the name of that melody, for I dunno... the last 12 years at least! I am not sure I truly needed to know, but it was kind of like an itch I could not scratch... until now!

    https://duckduckgo.com/?q=%22%E8%80%81%E9%BC%A0%E7...

    I have updated the last step of this 'ible , to include this new knowing; i.e the song is titled, "老鼠爱大米" or "mouse loves rice" which is the usual English translation of this title.

    Hearing this song (or at least reading via subtitles) kind of reminds me of some English language songs with a simile about nature in the refrain; e.g. "Missing" by Everthing But the Girl, with the refrain, "and I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain." Or even, Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf."

    Also it is good to know there is a well known example sketch, "toneMelody"

    https://www.arduino.cc/en/Tutorial/BuiltInExamples...

    for making an Arduino play some notes. I mean, I would have guessed something like that existed, but honestly, what I don't know about Arduino, uh need analogy here... It is kind of like what fish don't know about trees or mountain tops, but birds do.

    0
    whc2001
    whc2001

    Reply 7 weeks ago

    Yeah this song has gone viral in China about 15 years ago. A cute little song that uses analogy to express love, and it definitely has earworm potential ;)

    0
    LisaL14
    LisaL14

    5 years ago on Introduction

    Mr. Jackalope-z :-),

    I looked at your name and immediately saw the connection - THEN noticed the picture - very clever!.have you been to the Dakota's? That's the only place I've EVER heard of or seen a "jackalope!" Very, very good!!!

    0
    Jack A Lopez
    Jack A Lopez

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    I think jackalopes can be found all over the North American continent, and typically dead specimens are much more common than live ones.

    For example, at 0m+40s into this video,

    http://vdownload.eu/watch/14092195-mtv-cribs-rob-z...

    Rob Zombie shows us a mounted jackalope, just the head, at his house in California.
    But this jackalope was not native to California. Rob says he ran over it with his car, while driving through Wisconsin.

    In response to your question, I have never been to North Dakota, or South Dakota. Although I have been to Montana, which I think borders one of those Dakotas, probably the North one.

    0
    Dr.Bill
    Dr.Bill

    9 years ago on Introduction

    Would be Very Interesting to listen to Modulated Laser Light.

    Maybe even have 2 way line-of-sight laser communication.

    0
    Dr.Bill
    Dr.Bill

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Alaska and Hawai'i are states in the USA, there are only 50 of them despite what some of our politicians may think.
    I have, for periods of time, lived and worked on some 60 islands like Adak, The Big Island, Moloka`i, Maui, Lana`i, Oahu, Kawa`i and Ni`ihou. Out of all the islands I have been to Hawai'i MoBettah Sistah.
    Hawai'i will always be my home where ever I happen to live.

    Aloha

    0
    maker12
    maker12

    12 years ago on Introduction

    I did this once a IR remoted played part of the twilight zone theme song! it is landing!

    0
    VirtualBoxer
    VirtualBoxer

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thumbs down, everyone! I don't think they would do this!

    0
    Robot Lover
    Robot Lover

    9 years ago on Introduction

    Actually this guy posted his about 3 years prior to your ible'

    0
    blinkyblinky
    blinkyblinky

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    WHAT DID YOU SAY???

    Just Kidding...but mine uses headphone:)-

    0
    blinkyblinky
    blinkyblinky

    9 years ago on Step 9

    Thanks...I had really wanted to record the sound my light listener made but had no time...

    0
    Jack A Lopez
    Jack A Lopez

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I'm glad I could help! Thanks for noticing this 'ible.

    0
    blinkyblinky
    blinkyblinky

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    You're welcome...but...THIS IS EXACTLY MY CONCEPT!!!!

    0
    Geoffrito
    Geoffrito

    12 years ago on Introduction

    whoa, that's interesting. Who'd have thought that candles secretly play music?

    0
    DIY-Guy
    DIY-Guy

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Now people can sell battery powered tea light candles for privacy concerns, to help confuse laser window monitoring bugging equipment!

    Although it won't work well against the good optical bugs because a technician will just tune out the frequency of the tone generated tea light music.

    Can I get an LED that plays the theme from "Get Smart" please?
    Dunt da daaa DA!
    Dunt da daaa Duh!

    0
    Klaudiuszm
    Klaudiuszm

    10 years ago on Introduction

    I made one of these with a broken solar light. I figured it would have a nice enclosure and well, it was the only panel I had in my house.

    0
    Jack A Lopez
    Jack A Lopez

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    That works. Or at least I'm guessing that it worked... Have you found any interesting sounding light sources?