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2017 Advent Calendar of Fascinating Websites – Day 17- Music of the Spheres

“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” (Pythagoras)

Greek mathematician Pythagoras (6th Century BC) was the first to propose that the Sun, moon and planets all emit an unique hum based on their orbital revolution. “Engrossed in the thought of whether he could devise a mechanical aid for the sense of hearing which would prove both certain and ingenious… he happened to walk past the forge of a blacksmith and listened to the hammers pounding iron and producing a variegated harmony of reverberations between them, except for one combination of sounds.” (Iamblichus, 4th century AD).

Examining the hammers, Pythagoras realised a relationship in weight was responsible for the harmony and from this that there was a relationship between musical pitch and vibration; that different, simple numerical ratios produced different harmonic frequencies. An example would be stringed instruments where the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of the string that produces it.

Pythagoras then extrapolated that if objects in motion vibrate and produce sound, then planets, which are very large bodies in motion, must also produce a sound, and that, as their relative distances were concordant with musical intervals, the planets in orbit must produce harmonic sounds – a harmony or music of the spheres. He believed we aren’t aware that we hear the sounds because there was no absolute silence to compare it with.

In an earthcentric system, the intertwining of astronomy and music was believed to hold the key to knowing the divine and poetic order of the universe. The metaphysical theory of Musica Universalis was studied into the Middle Ages as part of the Quadrivium, the mediaeval curriculum that included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Musica Universalis lost ground as a philosophical movement by the end of the Renaissance.

If the Music of the Spheres fascinates you then listen to this BBC podcast where Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the influence and history of its philosophy. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00c1fct

In space no one can hear you scream” (Alien) – perhaps not, but there are a lot of other sounds out there. While modern science has shown us why we don’t hear the vibrations of planetary movement – humans don’t hear at frequencies that travel in a virtual vacuum – the planets and the galaxies do create sound. Electromagnetic vibrations, gamma radiation, x-rays and other frequencies are now being translated into audio signals so that we can listen to the sounds of universe.

In our header video NASA Space Sounds we hear electromagnetic vibration recordings and sampled sounds of the Earth,  planets, moons and rings of planets in our Solar System taken by various of NASA’s Spacecrafts. You can also listen to other sounds of the universe and find out how to get into radio astronomy through these links.

The sounds of the solar system, and beyond, are now also being interpreted musically – so finally we can hear Pythagoras’s “music of the spheres”. In the video GRBToMusicNEW H 264 by Sylvia Zhu we hear high-energy photons that have been converted into musical notes from the Fermi Gamma Ray Burst GRB 080916C, which was a particularly energetic burst that occurred in September 2008. Slowed by a factor of 5, the photons are “played” by different instruments (harp, cello, or piano) based on the probabilities that they came from the burst.  To find out more about the sounds and accompanying animation visit: https://blogs.nasa.gov/GLAST/2012/06/21/post_1340301006610/


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