Is a vibe a vibration?

Yesterday, numerous people tweeted me this picture:

Combining the language of “vibes” with the pseudoscientific idea that 528Hz is a sound frequency with physical and psychological healing powers, the sentence on this chocolate bar speaks to two things I’ve written about: vibes (duh) and solfeggio frequencies

This product copy is interesting because it seems to imply that vibes in the sense of overall orientation or comportment are the same kind of thing as sound frequencies. 

Wikipedia seems to think vibes are vibrations, WikiDiff can’t decide, the answers to this crowdsourced question draw a pretty clear distinction between “vibe as an “aura” and “vibration” as “rapidly moving,” and decisively agrees that a vibe is a qualitative state or the activity of experiencing a qualitative state. 

The Urban Dictionary definition gets it right–the vernacular distinction between vibes and vibrations correctly intuits and reflects deeper conceptual distinctions. Whereas vibrations are fundamentally temporal, vibes are primarily spatial.

Vibrations are frequencies, periodic patterns of higher and lower intensity that are measured as rates. Sound waves, for example, are periods of high and low air pressure. Periods unfold over time, and sound frequencies identify how many periods occur within a given unit of time.

As I explained in The Sonic Episteme, bell curves/Gaussian probabilities (a.k.a. frequency distributions) are analogous to sound waves because they are also modalities of frequency. Probabilities measure the frequency of a variable in a population and then find the range of the most frequent frequencies–that’s the “normal” range. Vibrations, especially sound frequencies, are temporal phenomena.

Vibes, on the other hand, are spatial phenomena. As I wrote here, a vibe is an arrangement of points in space. For example, 

to give off liminal space vibes, it doesn’t matter what kind of objects you have collected; what matters is whether or not those objects are aligned in a way that evokes emptiness and weirdness. Vibes are alignments or orientations that make some perceptual contents more palpable and some perceptual contents less so.

As alignments that make some things easier to perceive than others, vibes are spatial orientations. The relevant metric here isn’t rate but degree–maps, for example, track the relationships among points in terms of degrees of longitude and latitude. An empty grocery store, a loading dock, and an office building hallway all give off liminal space vibes because the objects that compose these spaces are aligned in a way that orients our perception in the direction of “liminal space.” When I walk into an empty hotel lobby at night and feel liminal space vibes, I’m not perceiving a rate or a frequency (like when I perceive sound), but a spatial orientation.

As I wrote last week, vibes have their roots in the way we talk about place. In 2013, the use of the term “vibe” or “vibes” in Anglophone media shifted from a term used almost exclusively in reference to a place to a term used to talk about people (and other things that aren’t places). Vibes are spatial because the term grew out of a way people talked about rooms, restaurants, cities, and all sorts of places and locations.

So, vibes and vibrations are not the same thing because vibes are spatial and vibrations are temporal. However, they do have one point of similarity. To tune frequencies, you bring their periods into alignment. For example, two unison pitches have the exact same frequency, pitches a an octave apart fit two periods of the higher pitch into one period of the lower pitch (the red and black lines below), and pitches a fifth apart fit one and a half periods of the higher pitch into one period of the lower pitch (the red and yellow lines below). 

Tuning brings frequencies into alignment with one another.

Even though the chocolate bar product copy names a specific frequency, it’s really speaking about practices of attunement. The chocolate has been attuned to that supposedly healing frequency (I have already made the “um that’s not how you temper chocolate” joke), and the product copy implies that by eating that chocolate bar, you will become similarly attuned. Frequencies and vibes are both forms of attunement.


Writing about vibe, mood, and energy, Mitch Therieau notes that philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote a lot about mood. He also wrote a lot about attunement. I’m not going to dig deep into Heidegger here because I don’t platform Nazis, but the connection Therieau makes is onto something–vibes are phenomenological. Heidegger was a phenomenologist, which meant he used a philosophical method that, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “Literally…is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.” In other words, phenomenology is a philosophical method that takes human experience as the primary object of knowledge and study. Philosopher Sarah Ahmed’s definition is a bit more clear: “phenomenology makes ‘orientation’ central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed ‘toward’ an object” (2). Phenomenology is the study of how I am oriented in the world and how the world is oriented to me; or, put differently, studying “the ways we experience things,” phenomenology uncovers what it is like to be oriented in particular ways to environments with specific orientations. For example, Jonathan Sterne’s new book studies what it’s like to experience the world with a vocal disability, and Alia Al-Saji’s article studies what it’s like to live in France and French-speaking Canada for Muslim women who wear hijab. Phenomenology, in other words, is the study of vibes.

Therieau reflects extensively on the “No thoughts, just vibes” idiom and connects it to the need to dissociate from an increasingly dystopian world. But this “don’t think, just experience” move also the most elementary step in phenomenological study. This technique is called “bracketing” because one is supposed to bracket one’s reflections and focus only on what they directly perceive in the moment. For example, say you’re in New York City on a sunny and unusually warm day in the middle of February–to bracket, you’d put aside any thoughts about, say, climate change, and just focus on the experience of warmth and sun, soaking up the good mood of the people around you, and so on. See: “no thoughts, just vibes.”

Whereas Therieau claims that “vibes” are a contemporary form mysticism or spirituality, I would argue that vibes are actually lay phenomenology (i.e., phenomenology practiced by laypeople who aren’t professionally-trained philosophers). 

And if vibes are lay phenomenology, then this makes it much easier for us to try to understand what counterhegemonic vibes practices might look like because there is a rich philosophical tradition of feminist, queer, anti-colonial, and anti-racist phenomenology. Think Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Sara Ahmed, Linda Alcoff, Alia Al-Saji…those are just some big names. This theoretical tradition can be a helpful resource for thinking more fully about vernacular practices like the “strategic knowledges” that Ireti Akinrinade and Joan Mukogosi have identified in teen and tween TikTok subcultures. These knowledges develop as users try to “reverse-engineer” TikTok’s infamously black boxed algorithm in order to take charge over how they experience the platform. As counterhegemonic vibes, strategic knowledges are something like what Alia-Al Saji calls “critical-ethical” modes of perception. Part of why I am more optimistic about the vibe episteme than Therieau seems to be is because I know two things: first, kids always find ways to use capitalist media in counterhegemonic ways, and second, there’s a well-developed tradition of feminist, queer, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist phenomenology that we can use to think about and test out alternative vibes.