Music of the Spheres – Listen to This Astronomer's Algorithm that Translates the Milky Way Galaxy into Jazz

Friday, 04 May 2018 - 11:13AM
Astronomy
Astrophysics
Science Art
Friday, 04 May 2018 - 11:13AM
Music of the Spheres – Listen to This Astronomer's Algorithm that Translates the Milky Way Galaxy into Jazz
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If there's one thing we learned from Close Encounters of the Third Kind – aside from the insinuation that it's totally fine to abandon your family for aliens – it's that the universal language of the cosmos is music. We haven't quite figured out which genre dominates the intergalactic Billboard charts, but one astronomer found a way to compose music using complex data from space.

University of Massachusetts Amherst's Mark Heyer developed an algorithm that transformed 20 years of astronomical radio telescope data into "Milky Way Blues" – a jazz tune that uses acoustic bass, piano, saxophone, and woodblocks to represent the spectral emission lines of atomic, molecular, and ionized gases.

"This musical expression lets you 'hear' the motions of our Milky Way galaxy," Heyer said. "Astronomers make amazing pictures, but they're a snapshot in time and therefore static. In fact, stars and interstellar gas are constantly moving through the galaxy but this motion is not conveyed in those images. The Milky Way galaxy and the universe are very dynamic, and putting that motion to music is one way to express that action."



Heyer's composition is mapped to a pentatonic scale, but he chose to use five notes instead of seven because he thought the bass notes sounded "jazzy and blue." The video of the song has been posted to the Astronomy Sound of the Month website with visuals created by fellow astronomer Greg Salvesen of UC Santa Barbara.

"Each observation is represented by a line showing where the telescope was pointing and the positions of the circles along a line show the locations of the gas in the galaxy responsible for the played notes," Heyer explained. For a more detailed explanation of how the music was created, check out the graphs and full technical write-up here.

We wouldn't call "Milky Way Blues" a Grammy-winner, but the very fact that it exists and the way it was made are really cool.

Heyer, if you're listening, we'd love a full album that uses various instruments and touches on other genres... Especially EDM.

Science
Space
Astronomy
Astrophysics
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