Piano sonata in the key of Kepler-11

By Phil Plait | July 1, 2012 7:00 am

Via reddit (if you’re a redditor, go there and upboat!) I found a very interesting use of astronomical data in music. The composer [Update: Astronomer Alex Parker created this!] took the orbital information from the six-planet system called Kepler 11 and codified it into musical notes! From the YouTube notes:

Here, I’ve taken each transit seen by the observatory and assigned a pitch and volume to it. The pitch (note) is determined by the planet’s distance from its star (closer=higher), and they are drawn from a minor 11 chord. The volume is determined by the size of the planet (larger=louder).

The result is actually quite listenable!

That’s lovely, and oddly compelling. It’s like the notes are trying to reach some sort of coherence, straining to achieve a melody, but don’t quite make it. I find this interesting: after listening, and without having to check, I knew the planets weren’t in orbital resonance.

A resonance is when one planet’s orbit is a simple fraction of another’s; for example, one planet might circle the star every 2 days, and the next one out in 4 days. Resonances take many ratios, like 3:2, or 5:3. The planets in Kepler-11 don’t do this (though two of them are near a 5:4 resonance). If they did, then eventually the sonata’s melody, such as it is, would repeat. But I didn’t get a sense of that listening to it.

Isn’t that amazing? You can take data using light, convert it to sound, and actually be able to get insight into it. In this case, of course, you could just make a spreadsheet with the planetary periods in it and start dividing away, but that’s no fun!

Perhaps this is just an oddity with no real impact. But I wonder. We convert data into charts and graphs so that we can look for trends, correlations, compare one datum to another visually. In a sense — haha, "sense"! — this is just another case of that, appealing to hearing instead of sight. I’m not a musician per se* so I don’t know if this method has real use or not.

But it’s still cool. And rather pleasant, don’t you think?

* 20+ years of playing bass trombone may be used to argue my musicianship either way, I suspect.

Related Posts:

Singing the praises of Carl Sagan
Wheel of stars
Laying down the pulsar beat
Music of the spheres

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (28)

Links to this Post

  1. SuiteLinks: July 7 « Piano Addict | July 7, 2012
  1. Jannercide

    Astronomy for the blind?

  2. darkgently

    “We convert data into charts and graphs so that we can look for trends, correlations, compare one datum to another visually… this is just another case of that, appealing to hearing instead of sight.”

    Anyone else read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency? Douglas Adams had exactly that idea… in 1987. :)

  3. carbonUnit

    Kinda reminded me of wind chimes. “Planet chimes” anyone?

  4. Very Pythagorean Music of the Spheres. Classic. :-)

    Has this been done with other exoplanetary systems or even the planetary systems such as Jupiter’s Galilean moons which are, FWIW, in resonant orbits to each other, memory serving?

    Perhaps this is just an oddity with no real impact. But I wonder.

    Can we really define “real impact” though? If something moves us or makes us think and wonder and gives us another perspective on things is that not “real impact” too? :-)

    @carbonUnit – July 1st, 2012 at 8:00 am :

    The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing stellar winds!
    (Of Kepler 11 to be precise!) 😉
    _________________- & with apologies to Bob Dylan for the “sabotage”.

  5. Bob

    I think it is very appropriate to use our senses to look for patterns in data. Our brain is really good at looking for patterns in aural and visual input. Relating astronomical data to music is an established idea… Kepler himself did so and it goes back to at least Pythagoras.

  6. Jonathan Kelly

    There is an iOS app named AstroCantus that let’s you choose any point in the sky and do the same. Really cool!

  7. achene

    Somebody has also done a very similar thing with the Solar System! On this one you can pause and control the tempo, and there are even little counters for each orbit that really show the contrast between the inner and the outer planets. At fast tempos the resonance beats become very apparent, but it is beautiful at any speed.


  8. The choice of such relatively consonant pitches (to our dodecaphonically-trained ears) creates a serene illusion of melodic structure. From a musical theory perspective, it may be more relevant to call this modal, than to suggest it represents a minor 11. (Spend some time with Django Reinhardt, or Lyle Mays — or just think of the opening guitar strike of the Beatle’s “Hard Day’s Night.” Now THAT’S a minor 11 😉

    If the frequencies instead had been made proportional, mathematically (perhaps to mass, rotational speed, or orbital distance), we would deem the sequence no more interesting than clanging bells, or a set of drinking glasses clanking by on a moving cart: imagine the Worst of Brian Eno (luckily, you have to imagine it, because Eno never releases that stuff).

    On the other hand, keeping the current pitches, they would do well to alternate the slowest, lowest tone (Kepler-11g?) between C and the F below that… then it kinda goes toward jazz 😉

  9. Glad you enjoyed it! For those who want the less-cluttered interface of Vimeo (or wish to download the video): http://vimeo.com/alexhp/kepler-11

    I’m hoping Kepler turns up a few more high-multiplicity systems so I can make more of these – I’ve tried a few 5-planet systems and they’re not quite as compelling. Also, I hope it turns up more of these systems because, well, they’re really cool systems.

  10. Richard Burian

    Dr. Gregory Laughlin from USC: Santa Cruz gave a really interesting lecture that builds upon similar ideas entitled “The Ultimate Fate of the Solar System (and the Music of the Spheres”. You can listen to the podcast at: http://www.astrosociety.org/education/podcast/

  11. Chris Crawford

    Speaking of unconventional ways to display data, a fellow in the 60s or 70s, IIRC, came up with a system for displaying information by means of human facial expressions.

  12. wow…this is almost exactly the same as a project I just finished a few months back. http://www.tenthcirclesound.com/sympyrean/
    And this is a bit of a plug but I’m working with a group right now releasing an album using sounds taken from Kepler data. http://tinyurl.com/copperwirestarbound

  13. Joseph G

    Tnhat is so cool! I LOVE stuff like this. This is going right up on my “favorite astronomical audio” list along with the “sounds” of the sun, the planets, and a black hole (based on radio emissions). I’m something of an aural learner, so stuff like this really captures my attention. Sometimes I do kinda feel like sound doesn’t get any love in the astronomical community. And I like how Phil points out how patterns can be made more clear with different media. I hope we see more things like this :)

  14. Joseph G

    @9 Alex Parker: Bravo and good show!!! 😀

    As Messier Tidy Upper pointed out, orbital resonances exist in our own solar system, such as with the Galilean moons. Have you ever created one of these videos for Jupiter’s satellites?

  15. Joseph G

    @10 Chris Crawford: You sure you don’t mean displaying facial expressions using information, starting with IRC? 😉 😛 :) :(

  16. worlebird

    @achene Interesting how, in that app, Venus seems to dominate the sound – it creates the primary beat, as it were – at just about all speeds. I wonder if this is a function of the sounds chosen for the app, or if it is more inherent to the relative timing of the orbits themselves?

  17. Brian

    Welcome to acoustic astronomy! Fiorella Terenzi was doing this back in the 80s with radio waves from distant galaxies.

  18. @12 Joseph G: I have a few other similar things I’m working on in my spare time. One thing I looked at after a suggestion from a collaborator is the natural libration frequency of resonant Kuiper Belt objects; one particularly interesting one that we’re studying right now (to be published shortly…) librates with a frequency of approximately D#, 20 octaves below middle C.

  19. RoseAnne Mussar

    In 1619, Johannes Kepler wrote “Harmonices Mundi” – the harmony of the world. He wrote melodies for each planet based on their orbital periods and eccentricities. A synthesized recording was done in 1979, at Princeton University on an IBM 360. I still have the record, but alas no record player. I remember how haunting the melodies sounded – there are definitely resonances there! If you have a subscription to New Scientist you can check their archive for the article describing this recording (Vol 67, No 3).

  20. Nathan

    I think a fun idea would be to do something like this for a bunch of multi-planet systems, using that algorithm for volume/tone as well, and do a multi-track assembly where you can associate a different sound sample with each planetary system, and then load multiple planetary systems in parallel (maybe with some speed adjustments to help match up tempos).

    Could produce some interesting effects. Combined with something like the PixelJunk 4a.m. interface it could be a pretty fun way to explore the Kepler data.

  21. Jason

    Whitney music box with planets

  22. don gisselbeck

    Playing trombone makes you even cooler, Phil – just like Gustav Holst (The Planets), Jonathan Frakes (Riker in Star Trek), and Chuck Yeager.

  23. Thomas Siefert

    Sounds like rain.

  24. Many composers have used data sets to determine the notes of their musical work and this approach grew out of the tradition of serialism pioneered by Schoenberg. I have also heard pieces based on fractals that sound very similar to the piece presented here.

  25. Lawrence Quimby

    In a post above Jannercide asks “Astronomy for the blind?” and by coincidence I was just reading an article in the May issue of “Physics T0day” about a blind astronomer, Wanda Diaz-Merced who listens to data.

    The article is available on line at:

  26. Malcolm

    I think it is a great way to present data when one of the variables is time, much better than a graph of 6 different waveforms. The details of orbital periods may be abstracted but you get a much better “feel” for the system, especially in comparison with others.

  27. Matt B.

    There must be some resonances, the three innermost planets were (virtually) simultaneous at least three times.

    Speaking of planets and music, a Danish band called The Asteroids Galaxy Tour has astronomical imagery in some of their videos, especially Golden Age.


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