Listening To This '80s Song's Bassline Can Break A Laptop

Consumer electronics, especially phones and computers, can often act erratically without any apparent damage. Devices often start behaving weirdly due to code shenanigans in updates or existing files, but on some occasions, any sudden or slow-paced damage to the hardware can also cause a computing machine to malfunction. Even a specially crafted text message may be enough to do the job, depending on the bug.

In 2021, a Windows 10 vulnerability caused the system to crash when a specific path was typed into the Chrome search bar. A year earlier, a noted leaker highlighted how a special mix of Unicode characters used to type a so-called text bomb word would cause an iPhone to become unresponsive (via Twitter). In 2018, Apple fixed a vulnerability across its phone, tablet, computer, and smartwatch portfolio that would crash the devices by simply typing a special character in the Telugu language, as detailed by Sophos. However, it's not always weird lines of code or busted components that trigger a system panic.

Sometimes, it can simply be a vocal cue like a popping melody — or even a guy shrieking into a server tray — that borks things on a computing device. During the early 2000s era, Janet Jackson's song "Rhythm Nation" reportedly crashed certain computers. Raymond Chen, a software engineer at Microsoft, highlighted the odd phenomenon in a blog post, revealing that the hit song would crash laptops that were armed with a specific class of hard drives in the Windows XP days.

It's all in the resonance physics

The aforementioned glitch was even assigned a serialized identity by Mitre Corporation's publicly disclosed cybersecurity vulnerabilities dashboard, which suggests that it wasn't an urban myth. So, why was it that only a specific Janet Jackson song made life difficult for a particular class of hard drives? The blame can be pinned on the natural resonant frequency of an unspecified 5400 RPM hard drive offered by an unnamed manufacturer that was used by multiple PC brands.

In physics, an item's natural resonant frequency is the innate frequency of a material at which it vibrates most vigorously. In this case, it had "one of the natural frequencies" for that specific 5400 RPM hard drive model that caused the storage device to malfunction, according to Chen. As a result, a laptop with the vulnerable hard drive inside would crash even if "Rhythm Nation" was playing on another machine nearby.

This resonance effect can sometimes have devastating effects. Take, for example, the Broughton suspension bridge collapse in 1831, which reportedly crumbled because the vibration produced by the marching of soldiers matched the natural resonance frequency of the bridge, causing it to shake vigorously until it eventually gave up and collapsed (via SciHi). To solve the issue with Janet Jackson's track crashing hard drives, the maker of the vulnerable storage device "added a custom filter in the audio pipeline" to remove the frequencies that caused it to malfunction, Chen explained in his blog post.