Tourism for Locals: Listening the to Nature Inspired Sounds of the San Francisco Wave Organ

Christmas music has reached its highest level of saturation this week — how many versions of “All I Want for Christmas is You” are playing in stores and restaurants across the U.S. right now? We shiver at the thought. If you want or need to catch a break, you might need to head out to the Marina to get away from it all. Yes, the Marina, that ONE district many of us try to avoid at all cost for its bro-y vibe, has one spot that is soothing to the eyes and most importantly — the ears. The Wave Organ, channels the surrounding tides to orchestra a cacophony of calming, oceanic sounds.

[jump] Located on a jetty at the end of a spit of land extending from the Golden Gate Yacht Club, it was built in May of 1986 by Peter Richards and George Gonzalez, two artists in residence at the Exploratorium. The jetty itself was constructed with recycled materials taken from a demolished cemetery, hence its irregular and eclectic design of carved granite and marble.

The installation includes 25 organ pipes made of PVC and concrete located at various heights within the site and below, extending down into the bay waters. When the waves roll in, the pipes resound low gurgling notes that ebb and flow with the restless movement of the ocean and the changing of the tides. The sound heard at the site is subtle, requiring visitors to become sensitized to its music, and at the same time to the music of the environment. 

But what is the science of sound behind the Wave Organ? According to the Atlas Obscura, it refers to a change in the air pressure within the pipes depending on how much water is passing through:

“It is similar to the phenomena of the sound heard in a conch shell – a specific volume of air resonating at a specific frequency. The same sort of thing happens in the pipes of the Wave Organ, but there is one important difference. In the Wave Organ, the columns of air within the pipes constantly change as the water moves in and out. As the length and volume of the air column in each pipe changes, the pitch of the sound it produces also varies — the larger the volume of air, the lower the sound — the smaller the volume of air, the higher the sound. The organ is active acoustically during higher tides.”

So while the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Ballet, and every other theater production is slammed with sold-out showings of holiday classics and productions, the Marina's Wave Organ provides a symphony of seaside sounds to those willing to make the trek to the solitary location. And best of all? It's free and you won't have to deal with those holiday crowds and shoppers.

Enjoy the music and from all of us at SF Weekly: happy holidays, San Francisco!

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