Cape Cod Wahines wind, wave, and kitesurfing

Sound and water, my two greatest joys

Sara Grady, surfing wahine

Sara on the beach

My two greatest joys in life are the ocean and music, and they have more in common than you would initially think. From a purely scientific perspective, ocean waves and sound waves are very similar. They have amplitude, which we feel as the height of the swell as we sit on our boards or hear as the volume of someone rocking out on the microphone. They have frequency – we feel frequency as how often a wave comes and hear it as a thrumming bass line (low frequency) or a scorching guitar solo (high frequency.)

We even have the opportunity to take advantage of constructive interference. In the ocean, it allows smaller waves to combine and create a larger wave. In music, constructive interference by two or more notes in the right intervals creates harmonies and chords.

wave photo by Jerry Johnson

Music and surfing can complement each other – music can be used to try to describe the feeling of catching a wave, and waves and the ocean can inspire both beautifully calm and alluringly energetic music.

The overarching genre of classic surf music (not even getting into the more modern reggae, ska, and punk influenced music) is usually divided into what’s usually called “surf pop”, like the Beach Boys, and “surf rock” or “surf guitar” like Dick Dale, the dozens of other bands that popped up in the 60’s like the Surfaris and Ventures, and their modern day descendants like Los Straitjackets.

sound waves

The former uses choral harmonies and lyrics about basic and wonderful things like going surfing with your friends. When I hear that kind of music, I can see the ocean in front of me and feel its potential, and it reminds me of how great it feels just to sit on a board and enjoy what’s around you, especially if your friends are there too.

In contrast, surf rock tends to have descending guitar riffs and a guitar sound that comes from certain equipment (tube amps, certain guitars) and ways of playing (lots of reverb and tremolo to make that “bendy” or “wiggly” sound, quick short notes). That always reminds me of the point where a wave starts to break and tumble and the excitement and precariousness of riding.

wave photo by Jerry Johnson

That said, listening to music about surfing doesn’t let you know exactly what it’s like when you first catch a wave, and thinking about the physics does nothing to capture the way either waves or music make you feel.

Even though I have some knowledge of music theory and have studied the ocean for years, I couldn’t explain to you why I get the same sort of gut punch of joy when I am singing a harmony with someone and it really locks in, perfectly resonant and on pitch, as I do when I feel that push and lift that lets me know that a wave has me, and I’m part of its resonance, but it’s one of the best feelings in the world.