Brian Wilson’s voice has always had a choirboy’s quality. With the Beach Boys, his songs were enthusiastic paeans and wistful dirges to the cathedral of his life in southern California. The subjects he sang about may have been a new car, a cool wave, or a lost girl, but to him, these subjects were holy, and his voice made it so for everyone else. The result? Pop ecstasy.
Nowhere is this more evident than in "You Still Believe in Me," the second track in the Beach Boys’ iconic 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Wilson himself described it as "a little 'Boys Choir’-type song with me doing the soprano. Very, very spiritual." In fact, as this hypnotic visualization by designer Alexander Chen of the isolated vocal tracks from "You Still Believe in Me" show, Wilson’s forlorn song about the girl who just won’t give up hope in him can be modeled using the physics of church bells.
There’s a good chance you are familiar with Chen’s work. A creative director at Google Creative Lab in New York, Chen is the artist who came up with the famous Les Paul Google Doodle, which replaced the logo on Google’s homepage with the playable strings of a Les Paul guitar. That project ended up being so popular that it became the first doodle to stay live for more than 24 hours, and ended up generating over five years of music around the world.
The intersection between music and visual design is the space where Chen lives. "I’ve been exploring ideas in this area for years, thinking about what a drawing or a subway map might sound like," Chen says. "The way that sound waveforms move through the air is a visualization that nature gave us for free. The math behind how these waveforms fall on our ears and line up in a perfect mathematic way has always seemed really special to me."
Chen’s "You Still Believe in Me" visualization came about when he became interested in the physics of church bells. Researching the idea, he found a simple relationship between the circumference of a church bell and its pitch, and soon realized he could visualize singing in this way.
"This piece was inspired by some simple questions: What does harmony look like? There are musical intervals that just feel right to our ears. Would they feel right to our eyes, too?" Chen tells Co.Design. "I started looking at traditional four-part choir music. But maybe because I had just done a Bach visualization, I wanted to have a bit more fun."
"You Still Believe in Me" was close to Chen’s heart. It was a song played at his wedding, and he used to hum it to his newborn to put him to sleep. Given the choir-like vocals, the song seemed meant for visualization. "In that opening melody, they’re literally running through all the notes of a scale. It was too perfect," Chen says.
To make the visualization, Chen transcribed the song, note by note, and then wrote a program in Processing to visualize the notes. Using the pitch of each note, Chen could use the physics of church bells to describe the circumference of a circle meant to represent it. As for the colors, he used the palette of Pet Sounds' cover art. "I thought it helped make the visualization seem less like a computer program, and more like a poster come to life." The end result was a chorus of circles, swelling and shrinking to the modulation of Wilson’s melancholy voice. "In the end, it was almost like you’re looking up at the bottom of a sea of church bells in a perfect mathematical world."
"As humans, we’re mainly visual creatures," Chen says. "We’re really good at dissecting complex visual layers, but not as good at sound. Sometimes I wonder if simple visualizations like this might help us hear better, literally."
Seeing "You Still Believe in Me" as visualized by Chen, it’s hard not to agree that such visualizations are important. This is what Brian Wilson’s particular style of pop ecstasy would look like outside of space-time. It’s the geometry of Wilson’s acoustic genius, distilled.