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Sand dunes against blue sky

Listen to the Song of the Desert Dunes


In 35 deserts around the world there are the so-called ‘singing dunes’ that generate impressive melodies when their sands fall.

The sound is noisy, as if dozens of drums were played at the same time, but there are also whistles, songs and a slow murmur that resembles the low musical scale of a cello. And all with sufficient coherence to appear like a melody composed with much care. This is how the ‘singing dunes’ of the desert sound, one of the natural phenomena that have most astounded its audiences, from the Bedouin caravans to Marco Polo and Charles Darwin.

This music occurs in 35 deserts around the world, the product of the falling sand that, as it falls, produces a deep roar that can last for 15 minutes and reverberate for six miles. In the 13th century, Marco Polo said that these dunes, which he attributed to evil spirits of the desert, “at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.”

But how the dunes produce this ‘music’ is a mystery that is still hotly debated. Another fascinating question is why different dunes ‘sing’ different songs, and how is it that some sing more than one note at a time. Now we know that it is not necessarily the movement of the ocean of sand what determines the tone of the note, but it is the size of the grains of sand and their temperature.

To verify that, a group of French biologists traveled to the Sahara desert and recreated small avalanches in certain dunes. They noticed that the smaller grains of sand brushed against other grains of the same size and created a constant flow of collisions, the dune emitted a certain tone, and while the larger grains moved at a slower pace, they generated another tone on the musical scale. Therefore, the greater variety of sizes of grain that a dune has, the greater number of musical tones will form its song. But the temperature of the sand also plays an important role in the final composition: the driest grains have a deeper sound than the damp ones.

We can imagine the nomadic caravans in pre-Islamic times that considered the ear to be ‘the father of the senses,’ listening to the dunes sing. No doubt often during their long journeys they would have been taken aback by the noisy and melodic avalanche of a dune that broke the supernatural silence of the desert with a composition for their ears only. This is one of the delights of the imagination. And until we get the chance to hear one for ourselves, we can anticipate that by watching this video.

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