Thanks To Three NASA Telescopes, You Can Now Listen To The Music Of The Center Of The Milky Way

Published November 30, 2023

The piece, titled “Where Parallel Lines Converge,” goes beyond artistic inspiration — it’s a representation of actual NASA data.

Sheet Music

NASAComposer Sophie Kastner has translated a composite image of the center of the Milky Way into a symphonic piece that can be performed by musicians.

Have you ever wondered what the center of the Milky Way galaxy sounds like? Now, thanks to three NASA telescopes and collaborations with composers and musicians, you can hear a musical interpretation of the data being emitted by the cosmos.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Kimberly Arcand, an expert in astronomy visualization at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian.

In its raw form, much of NASA’s telescopic data, including X-ray and infrared light, is unseeable to the human eye. Usually, scientists convert this data into colorful, starry images.

“It dawned on me quite a few years back that that was prioritizing a visual when it wasn’t necessarily always the best case or the only case that that should be created,” Arcand said in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “Why couldn’t we use some other sense to be able to explore this data, particularly for people who are blind or low vision?”

At first, Arcand experimented with using tactile models, such as Lego blocks, to represent the data in a new way. But after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her and her team to go digital, Arcand teamed up with musicians and sound engineers from System Sounds, a science and art outreach project.

Using computers to mathematically map the data, they created auditory models, called sonifications, for several astronomical images. The idea was to transform the unknowable telescopic data into sounds listeners might be able to perceive and understand.

High-pitched sounds represent light in the top section of the images, while low-pitched sounds depict the bottom section. How bright the light is determines the volume, and the data from each of the three telescopes used to create the sonifications is played by a different set of instruments.

But the project didn’t stop there. Arcand said that when she gave talks about the sonifications, musicians would ask if they could play the pieces. So she reached out to composer Sophie Kastner to turn one of the sonifications into a playable piece.

“As an artist and a musician, I was fascinated by the idea of taking something that’s scientific and turning it into art or music,” Kastner said. “Those two things aren’t as far removed as one might think.”

Kastner was given a composite image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and tasked with translating it into song. She interpreted it into a small ensemble composition of strings, woodwinds, percussion, and piano, titled “Where Parallel Lines Converge.”

“It’s like a writing a fictional story that is largely based on real facts,” Kastner said in a statement. “We are taking the data from space that has been translated into sound and putting a new and human twist on it.”

Milky Way

X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; IR: Spitzer NASA/JPL-CaltechThis composite image depicts what is known as the Galactic Center, the middle of the Milky Way.

In creating the piece, Kastner said she approached it almost as if she were writing a film score for the photo. She broke the image into three smaller sections, and created a minute-long auditory “vignette” for each one. Kastner said she wanted to convey a “vastness, or a sense of endlessness… feeling small in comparison to something so huge.”

In the composition, different types of data are represented with different instruments, tones, and registers. For example, stars are represented by sharp staccato notes, while foggy or cloud-like structures get long, sustained notes. X-ray data is represented by a high-register, bright tone, while infrared data has a lower, darker tone.

The “crescendo” of the piece is the supermassive black hole — the bright spot near the image’s lower right corner.

The piece was recorded by Ensemble Eclát, an orchestra from Montreal, at McGill University earlier this year. The sheet music is available to download for free.

Now, Kastner and Arcand hope to continue and expand the project. Kastner said she would like to develop the piece into a longer composition or to write more pieces like it.

“In some ways, this is just another way for humans to interact with the night sky just as they have throughout recorded history,” Arcand said. “We are using different tools but the concept of being inspired by the heavens to make art remains the same.”

After reading about this musical interpretation of the galaxy, listen to nine of the most haunting sounds ever recorded. Or, listen to what a seismic quake on Mars sounds like.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Holtz, Hannah. "Thanks To Three NASA Telescopes, You Can Now Listen To The Music Of The Center Of The Milky Way.", November 30, 2023, Accessed June 21, 2024.