San Francisco's Wave Organ Plays With the Tides


SF Wave organ SF Wave organ
Constructed in 1986, the acoustic Wave Organ sculpture was built from bricks, cement, and carved granite and marble from an old cemetery. At water level, the organ amplifies the sounds of the waves coming through its pipes. Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 2.5)

One of my favorite things about taking visitors on a tour of my hometown is showing them some of San Francisco's lesser known but extra cool treasures. Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful, and sure, the "Full House" house is fun to gawk at, but the city's real magic lies in the landmarks and details that usually aren't found in guidebooks. Case in point: the Wave Organ.

Constructed in 1986, the Wave Organ pretty much lives up to its name: It's an acoustic sculpture activated by the waves of San Francisco Bay. In collaboration with the city's epic science museum, the Exploratorium, artist Peter Richards developed the concept after receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980. Partnering with sculptor and master stone mason, George Gonzalez, Richards created the permanent installation after an enthusiastic response to his rudimentary prototype, which debuted in 1981.

The acoustic sculpture, constructed from bricks, cement, and the carved granite and marble of an old cemetery, among other elements, is designed to amplify the sounds of the waves coming through the jetty. Twenty-five PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and concrete pipes make up the musical instrument itself, each extending into the water at different lengths. When the waves crash into the ends of the pipes, they create deep, melodic music that fluctuates with the motion of the water.

The Wave Organ's unique sounds are a result of air moving through the pipes at different frequencies. Since each pipe is a different length and accommodates a different volume of air, the pitch each one produces is also different, creating a harmonious collection of notes. The more air that can move through the pipe, the lower the sound; less air means a higher tone.

The Wave Organ isn't just a must-visit spot for the acoustics — the attraction also happens to sit in one of the most beautiful sites in the city, close to Crissy Field, overlooking the San Francisco skyline and that famous bridge. And timing is everything when it comes to visiting the Wave Organ: The acoustics are only active during high tide and the music is best heard around high tide, so keep an eye on the Bay before you go.