For thousands of years, people have sensed a connection between musical patterns and the motions of planets, stars, and galaxies.
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras and the astronomer Johannes Kepler both pondered whether astronomical objects generated some form of celestial music, while composers such as Joseph Haydn and Gustav Holst sought inspiration for their work from outer space.
Matt Russo, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, is part of this storied astro-musical tradition. As the co-founder of SYSTEM Sounds, a sci-art outreach project with the motto “letting the music of the cosmos be heard,” Russo translates astronomical data into musical compositions, accompanied by stunning visualizations.
“Music is all about cycles—cycles happening at different speeds—and so is astronomy, right from the very beginning,” said Russo in a VICE interview posted on Tuesday. “In some cases, it’s possible to actually convert them into literal sounds so we can experience the churning and the patterns of the universe.”
Take the TRAPPIST-1 star system, which Russo calls the “most musical solar system we’ve found so far.” Located about 40 light years away from Earth, the orbital periods of its seven planets form a “resonant chain” that can be adapted into a musical composition.
In addition to sonifying these planetary orbits, SYSTEM Sounds has spun tunes out of Hubble Space Telescope images, exoplanet catalogs, and Apollo Program data. Russo and his colleagues also recently launched My Starry Night, a website that converts the night sky at any location into a musical composition.