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I've read lots of books on Pythagoras and the philosophy of the Music of the Spheres, but it all seems to stop at labeling planets with scale degrees. And then what? If they're all there, filling up every note of the scale, how can they move, and, you know, make melodies?

Now, I've got a copy of Kepler's Harmonies of the World on the shelf, but I'm afraid it'll just be more of the same[*], and my long quest will never end. Can anyone shed some light on how to go about trying to hear the music of the spheres?

[*] Now, of course, I've flipped through it. But the only part that looks like musical phrases is in an editorial footnote, an excerpt from Palestrina. The other pictures look like more scales. Ugh. And the whole book is just Book 5. Maybe the other books are better... <rant>Same difficulty trying to find a translation of Beothius.</rant>

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Haha love the <rant> tag! –  AsianSquirrel Apr 9 at 12:52
    
A friend of mine from the RAM, the composer Patrick Nunn, composed some piano pieces using recordings supplied by NASA. Here's a link: patricknunn.com/scores_spheres.html –  Bob Broadley Apr 9 at 16:24
    
I wish W3c would implement a <rant> tag in HTML - there's a clear requirement for it –  user2808054 Apr 10 at 9:51

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The Musica Universalis stretches the idea of music, in the same way that describing courtship as a "dance" stretches the idea of dance. As such, your hope to find melody in there is optimistic at best.

Middle C - C4 - is 261.62 Hz; that is 261.62 vibrations per second. C-1 is 8.17 Hz, which you get by halving the frequency 5 times. It's inaudible, but it can still be considered a C.

Halve C-1 another 19 times, to get C-20, and you'll find it's 1.34 vibrations a day. Still a C. Very far from being audible to humans.

Some kind of superbeing who could sense the motion of planets, and experienced time on a larger scale than us, might sense a hum like that from the rotation of an earth-like planet.

But more practically, an astronomer can get satisfaction from their perception that the stars, planets, moons, and so on, are following patterns. It is music only in a metaphorical sense.

Earth's spin, 1 per day, is somewhere between F# and G. Earth's rotation around the sun, once a year, is between C and C#. The ocean tides of earth, influenced by the complex interplay of the moon's orbit and the inertia of water, no doubt have an interesting harmonic structure.

As you've read - you can find a number of frequencies for all sorts of heavenly bodies.

Here's one way you might convert this into sound that a human can hear:

  • Pick a point or a path in space
  • Pick a multiplication factor, to bring whatever frequencies you're using, into the human hearing range.
  • Invent a way to derive the "loudness" of a particular body, from that point. Probably based on distance and size.
  • Play a hum made up of the various frequency properties of that body, multiplied by your chosen factor, at the loudness for that moment.
  • Have the various hums change as the heavenly bodies (probably also sped up) move around.

So, for example, you might simulate the "music" "heard" by a comet in an elliptical orbit of the sun. The hum of the sun will be ever present, but will get louder when you're closer to it. As you approach a planet, its higher-pitched hum will fade in, along with the pulse of its moons orbiting, then fade away as you move away.

Whether this will be a pleasant sound, is another matter. I suspect it will be discordant and boring, if judged by the standards of tonal music popular with modern humans.

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If you have two vibrating strings you can produce a consonant musical interval between them if their vibrating lengths form certain integer ratios, like 3:2.

It's appealing to scale this idea up to solar system size - to assume that 'consonant' systems like the planets also exhibit integer ratios in their properties.

It's actually wrong though - planetary motion is rather more complicated than that. And in music it turns out that those integer ratios actually lead to the Pythogorean Comma - so the basic premise is flawed too.

It's always appealing to try to explain things simply, but in doing so we may end up glossing over the actual behaviour in favour of a satisfying explanation. We end up bending what we're seeing to fit our explanation.

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Well the simple answer is yes, and various groups have taken different stabs at it. Some have been based on the relative wavelengths of the orbits - and one was on actual vibrations from shock waves in interstellar gases.

Whether or not they will be musical is another thing entirely...

I will try and find some more links

Update: It looks like NASA's version is not from taking the planetary orbits and speeding up the frequencies, but instead from charged particle interactions, magnetosphere sounds, radio waves etc. and have not had the frequencies changed. Have a look at the nasaspacesounds.com page and the slightly less scientific neuroacoustic.com site.

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