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Visit San Francisco’s giant ‘wave organ’ played by the sea

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The ‘wave organ’ is a unique sculpture found on the outskirts of San Francisco. Right down on the shore of the bay near the Golden Gate Yacht Club, the huge concrete structure of more than 20 pipes is ‘played’ by the waves.

The wave organ was built in 1986 by artist Peter Richards and sculptor George Gonzales, in collaboration with the San Francisco Exploratorium. Its jetty is made of beautiful carved granite and marble salvaged from the Laurel Hill Cemetery just north of San Francisco, which was demolished to make way for a housing estate. The organ itself is made of concrete and PVC pipes, which lie at various different elevations, so they each produce a different sound when the waves crash against the end of them. The sound also varies depending on the tide and conditions of the sea – the best time to visit is high tide.

The music made by the organ is low and subtle, a bit like the sound made by a conch shell. The difference is that the length and volume of the air column in each pipe changes as the waves move in and out, and with it the pitch of the sound produced also varies.

The wave organ is dedicated to Frank Oppenheimer (1912-1986), who founded the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1969. A public learning laboratory based on science, art and human perception, the Exploratorium itself is also well worth a visit while you’re in San Francisco. It was originally founded at the Palace of Fine Arts near the wave organ’s location, but in 2013 moved to Piers 15 and 17 on the Embbarcadero a few miles across the city.

The site of the wave organ is wheelchair accessible, and the extraordinary structure includes several stone platforms and benches where you can sit near the mouths of pipes to listen. While you’re being lulled by the beautiful music of the waves, you can also enjoy spectacular views across the bay of San Francisco’s skyline, the Marin headlands and the Golden Gate bridge.

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