Skip to main content

San Francisco’s wave organ never sounds better than it does this week. Here’s why

The Wave Organ is located on a jetty overlooking San Francisco’s Marina District, and is a longtime attraction for tourists and city residents alike. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

With the King Tides reaching a peak this week, there’s no better time to amble over to San Francisco’s Marina District to visit the Wave Organ, a musical instrument crafted from 25 pipes that gurgle with the sounds of flowing water. Free and open to the public, it’s best to consult tidal charts to time your visit around the highest water levels. 

The Wave Organ's uses the the lapping of the waves against the pipe openings to create unique soundscapes—click play to listen.

The unusual public art piece—composed of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe, concrete and granite resurrected from the historic Laurel Hill cemetery—is as much about the overall setting as it is about the auditory experience. 

“It gives the feeling of an ancient ruin,” said Peter Richards, the artist behind its design. “It’s a delightful surprise.” 

Peter Richards, the Exploratorium's Artist Emeritus and creator of the Wave Organ, discusses the inspiration and construction of the installation. | Video by Mike Kuba & Jesse Rogala

The funerary material—tons of marble and Sierra granite—was brought on-site to compose a protective jetty, and Richards was able to design the artwork from stone already there thanks to the help of master stonemason George Gonzalez, who pieced together some of the original mortuary statues. 

Gonzalez had wanted to be a surgeon before his training in graphic design, which eventually led him to the three-dimensional work of stonemasonry. 

“I have really good hands,” he said. 

Gonzalez, inspired by the Italian stonemasons who used to play pinochle and chess on the jetty, created a park-like refuge with the construction, made from granite curbstones and still-visible funerary material. 

The ocean tides can be heard rushing through the Wave Organ at strategically placed openings along the jetty. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Unlike the historic City Cemetery, a burial ground for poor people that was recently named the city’s first archaeological landmark, the people entombed at Laurel Hill, one of the “Big Four” cemeteries that used to exist in the city’s Richmond District, were titans of industry and United States senators—11 of them in all. 

“If you were a wealthy person in San Francisco before they established the new cemeteries down the peninsula, you would be buried in Laurel Hill,” said local historian and San Francisco Heritage president Woody LaBounty, who grew up going to the Wave Organ. “I thought it was neat you could actually hear the ocean talk through the furniture of people who had passed away,” he said. 

Light glints off the water by a jetty that has a concrete and stone structure on it.
The unusual and musical public art piece known as the Wave Organ was developed by Peter Richards, a longtime senior artist at the Exploratorium, and stonemason George Gonzalez in 1986 using PVC pipe, concrete and granite. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Richards became fascinated with tidal motion—something that didn’t exist in his native Colorado—and his curiosity prompted him to stick a section of pipe into the bay to listen to the tides. He conducted his experiment while visiting his buddy Michael Oppenheimer at the Exploratorium, as the artist had become friends with the Oppenheimers after the family bought a Colorado ranch neighboring his.

Richards, in turn, is also a firsthand witness to the birth of the Exploratorium, which was founded by Frank Oppenheimer—a brother of the “father” of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer—in 1965.  

“He coined the word ‘Exploratorium,’” Richards said of Frank Oppenheimer. “It wasn’t a repository of artifacts. It was a place you could explore.” 

The institution’s structure was also unlike that of an ordinary museum. Other than the director Frank Oppenheimer, no one had a title, and there were no departments, Richards said. 

“It was a barn-raising culture, where we all worked together to make things happen,” he said. 

Eavesdropping on Someone’s Plumbing Problem

Conceived in 1980 and completed in 1986, the Wave Organ feels timeless and inscribed into the landscape. It’s a delightful, secretive ruin that seems like it’s always been there, waiting for you to discover it.

When asked about how to make the most of listening to the Wave Organ—other than going at high tide or a full moon—Richards had some very specific advice. 

“Take a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread and just go there,” he said. “Slow down.” 

For Richards—and for many of the visitors who love the Wave Organ—it’s the vantage point that keeps them coming back and not the organ, whose music LaBounty said some people liken to “eavesdropping on someone’s plumbing problem.” 

The Wave Organ in San Francisco's Marina District responds to the King Tides. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

There’s the rippling water of the bay, the forever changing skyline, the architectural marvel of the Golden Gate Bridge, the people walking the Marina Green.

“It pulls together all of the many components that make San Francisco a magical place,” Richards said. “The city itself is romantic and beautiful and not flat.” 

Writ even larger, it’s not only about San Francisco but the interconnections between all of us and everything—nature and humanity. That’s why the layers of recycled stone and history composing the place feel appropriate as you sip your wine and snack on your bread. Out on the jetty, your mind flattens out, the ground so low you feel as if you’re one with the water. 

“I want people to have a sense that this is the right place to be at the right time,” he said. 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at