Capturing music from the stars

Musica Universalis or Music of the Spheres is an philosophical concept which portrays the proportions in the movement of the celestial bodies – the sun, planets, stars and so on – as a form of music. These observable patterns aren’t quite musical, since they lack harmony, but the idea itself has influenced a great of artists, namely musicians in this case. However, is it possible to take this concept literally? Can stars create music?

The short answer would be yes, and a fantastic project initiated by Gerhard Sonnert, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, allows users vising the website to literally hear the star chants. Sonnert worked closely with Wanda Diaz-Merced, a postdoctoral student at the University of Glasgow, who unfortunately lost her sight while she was still in her 20s. Diaz-Merced didn’t let this stop her from continuing to study physics, using her other senses.

It all started when she heard the distinct bleeps and twitches of a signal from a radio telescope. This inspired her to work on a software called xSonify, which allows users to present numerical data as sound and use pitch, volume, or rhythm to distinguish between different data values. In 2011, Diaz-Merced worked with data from  NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and plugged in data into her software from an EX Hydrae — a binary system consisting of a normal star and a white dwarf.  In this system, the X-ray brightness fluctuates as the white dwarf consumes gas from its companion.

A screenshot from X-Sonify, a sonification tool developed by NASA

A screenshot from X-Sonify, a sonification tool developed by NASA

The resulting sounds were interesting, but far from melodic. A quick listen would be enough for almost anyone to label them as annoying. Luckily, Sonnert sensed some magic in these bland tunes and invited a musician friend of his, Volkmar Studtrucker, to play with their sonified star data. With the  EX Hydrae material, Volkmar created nine musical pieces, in a variety of musical styles (blues, jazz, and more), which they played and recorded in a trio (Volkmar Studtrucker, piano; Gerhard Sonnert, bass; and Hans-Peter Albrecht, drums).

Check out the sidebar on this page to sample the songs. Each song has the original sound data from the star system. Once again, science and art intertwine. They also have and always will, but this is a more explicit example that hopefully will enlighten some.

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