You’ve probably heard of stories of wine glasses shattering when someone sings or plays a specific note at a very high volume. Or a bridge collapsing when a large number of soldiers are marching on it. Part of the equation in this phenomenon is resonant frequency of the material involved. Though this is also the reason behind a single music video crashing some older Windows XP-era laptops.
Raymond Chen, principal software engineer at Microsoft, tells a story of some old laptops by a “major computer manufacturer” crashing when playing a specific song by a certain artist. Which is later revealed to be Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson. The unnamed brand found that their laptops would crash when playing said song, and would even crash another nearby laptop that’s not playing the song. It even crashed competitor-made machines.
Further investigation revealed that part of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation had one of the natural resonant frequencies of the 5400rpm hard drives used at the time. So the sound produced by the laptop’s own speakers caused its hard drive to vibrate, and subsequently crashing the laptop. The solution was to add an audio filter that prevented said frequency from being made by the laptop speakers.
Chen notes that it’s likely that the unnamed manufacturer put a digital equivalent of a “do not remove” sticker on the audio filter for said frequency. But at the same time, he hopes that newer models are no longer using a filter to protect an old model drive that most modern laptops are probably no longer using.
Here's our first video from our new series with Raymond Chen, @ChenCravat.
We asked him to tell us about the mystery wherein some music would crash a laptop!!?? pic.twitter.com/BRgfsWEaaC
— Windows Dev Docs (@WindowsDocs) August 12, 2022
Overall, it’s a fascinating situation where a song, so innocuous and yet so specific, has this sort of power over a piece of hardware. He also links to a story of a Microsoft colleague, Larry Osterman, who found that the game 101 Monochrome Mazes would reliably crash a PC. The cause was traced to the speaker on the motherboard being too close to the reset trace.