Stellar horn plays the music of stars

March 5, 2004

The music of the spheres is being heard for the first time thanks to a unique collaboration between an astronomer and a composer.

Every note in the five-minute composition is "played" by an electronic orchestra of celestial instruments modelled on the acoustic properties of different stars.

The piece itself is inspired by the latest astronomical insights into stellar processes.

Zoltán Kolláth, deputy director of Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, and Hungarian composer Jenö Keuler will play the result - Stellar Music 1 - to academics at the interdisciplinary musicology conference in Graz, Austria, next month.

Ancient Greek thinkers searched the heavens for the music of the spheres that they believed was integral to the organisation of the cosmos.

Johannes Kepler similarly sought harmonies among the elliptical orbits he found underpinning the solar system in the 17th century.

Stellar Music 1 is based on the internal physics of stars.

Most stars go through unstable phases during which they pulsate, generating standing sound waves that can be detected from the earth as rhythmic changes in brightness.

Dr Koll th has used this astronomical data to reveal the internal structure of pulsating stars. But in his collaboration with Mr Keuler, he used it to make music.

While the human ear can detect sound waves of between 20 to 20,000 cycles per second, stars have sound-wave cycles of up to several years.

So a computer program was developed to speed up the frequencies to make them audible.

The overtones, which give conventional instruments their distinct sounds, were also calculated for four individual stars, providing each one with a unique signature.

Dr Kolláth worked out the properties of a musical instrument capable of producing the same sounds as these stars.

The result is the Cepheid Horn, a musical instrument of stellar proportions with a kink in its neck.

Other instruments used in Stellar Music 1 have been extracted from the internal noise of stars including the Sun, produced by irregular oscillations.

Dr Kolláth admitted the resulting composition was difficult to describe.

"The first time you listen to it it sounds strange, but you could hear this sort of music in science- fiction movies," he said.

Donald Kurtz, professor of astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire, described it as "reasonably pleasing".

"Music and mathematics have a strong relationship with each other," Professor Kurtz noted. "But I wouldn't want to listen to this for too long."

steve.farrar@thes.co.uk

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