How Underwater Sound Systems Work

The Sound of Underwater Music

Underwater German opera? You're soaking in it. Here we see singers performing in a 2011 rehearsal for "AquAria Palaoa."
Underwater German opera? You're soaking in it. Here we see singers performing in a 2011 rehearsal for "AquAria Palaoa."
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Jacques Cousteau may have dubbed it "the silent world," but evidently he never thought to crank "Yellow Submarine" from the bottom of the Calypso.

Each year, divers converge on Florida's Looe Key Reef for the Underwater Music Festival, and boat-mounted Lubell speakers crank the tunes for more than 300 divers and snorkelers [source: Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce].

But hey, it's not all classic rock and rowdy scuba divers. French composer Michel Redolfi is something of a specialist in underwater music. His albums combine natural ocean sounds with electronic ambience to create soundscapes specifically designed for underwater broadcast.

Redolfi's concerts, as you might imagine, typically take place underwater -- often in swimming pools, but also in the ocean itself. His 1984 album "Sonic Waters" includes hydrophone recordings of an original electronic piece broadcasted through the waters off the coast of La Jolla, Calif. In collaboration with music engineer Daniel Harris, Redolfi debuted multiple musical instruments designed exclusively for use in an underwater environment. These included the SOSNO underwater percussion instrument (named after its designer) and the electronic DUCS (Digital Underwater Controller System). His 1992 opera "Chrysalis" even involved a soprano submerged in a 2-ton plastic bubble.

And yet Redolfi isn't the only artist to dabble in the world of underwater opera. Back in 2009, Juliana Snapper debuted in an opera titled "You Who Will Emerge from the Flood." The performance took place in a Manchester, England, swimming pool, with Snapper using "mouth-to-water" singing that required intense research and "hours submerged in my bathtub and borrowed pools" [source: Helmreich].

Not to be outdone, German swimmer-turned-opera-singer Claudia Herr debuted her underwater opera "AquAria Palaoa" in Berlin on May 1, 2011. The finished piece is a combination of opera, underwater musical performance and synchronized swimming.

And yet all Harry Houdini would have heard inside his Chinese Water Torture Cell was the muddy sound of the outside audience and the clink of his chains.