Using sound in space exploration

Musician and scientist Kelly Snook spent 20 years at NASA studying Mars and the moon, before joining Imogen Heap as her studio manager and musical assistant in 2010.

With the help of Snook and a small team, Heap created the mi.mu gloves, which allow musicians to control music and visuals through movement. In 2015 Snook toured with Ariana Grande as her mi.mu glove technician.

Now, Kelly spends much of her time in her Fab Lab at the University of Brighton, where she is developing an immersive musical instrument that will sonify the movement of the planets. We caught up with her to find out more...

We’ve heard something exciting is going on in a lab at the University of Brighton. Can you tell us a bit more?

That’s correct! We are building an immersive musical instrument that will allow people to play the music in our solar system.

The so-called ‘music of the spheres’ has never before been playable by humans as it was never believed to be audible.

Dr Kelly Snook

There’s music in our solar system? Where?

It dates back to at least 570 BC to Greeks such as Pythagoras. And 400 years ago, Johannes Kepler explored the music of the spheres even more deeply and rigorously in his book Harmonies of the World. Most people know him as the astronomer who discovered the three laws of planetary motion but, primarily, he used musical and mathematical principles of harmony in his work.

His scientific book on planetary motion is full of musical notation. Kepler believed the cosmos has an intrinsic order to it that is inherently musical.

You can see it in the movement of the planets around the sun. They create the most beautiful patterns that are very clearly similar to patterns we see in music theory.

To me, the solar system is a giant musical instrument just begging to be played.

This is blowing my mind. What you’re saying is that music and astronomy are linked and that music was there before humans were around to play instruments?

Yes. Kepler thought there were natural harmonies embedded in all of creation that we are naturally programmed to find beautiful. Musical instruments gave us access to the natural order of things.

And there was a time, hundreds of years ago, when music was not used as a way of expressing oneself, or as an art form.

Back then music was grouped with maths, geometry, and astronomy, all of which were tools for exploring our reality.

But this idea was lost for centuries. When I worked at NASA, sound and music were not really on the list of popular tools for scientific research, although that is changing.

Kepler believed harmony was the key to understanding the universe and it was his ‘theory of everything.’ He believed harmony was God’s organising principle for all of creation.

Kepler was a deeply religious man, but his views were considered heretical and his church cast him out. It was simply inconceivable that anything but perfect spheres would describe the movement of the planets or that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe. Despite the beautiful, musical elegance of Kepler’s mathematics and theories, his ideas were not initially accepted.

The instrument we are building is called Concordia, which means harmony.

You co-created the mi.mu gloves with Imogen Heap and team. Sound and music is obviously a huge part of your life. What music do you enjoy the most? 

Many of us who create music find we don’t use music as recreationally as others do.

I do think music has lost its way, at least partially. Music is exceptionally good for exploring our world more deeply and how we are all connected. It can powerfully unite us and let us experience our oneness and our divinity.

Music has the power to connect us to our reality in ways that we can’t access at human scale. In that sense it has an almost magical power.

But over time, we came to rely on certain people – musicians, composers, performers – to create those sounds for others. And when that happened, music was slowly reduced to something used for entertainment and materialistic pursuits.

By contrast, Concordia will not be about consumption, or making money. The data that makes the instrument work will be free to take and replicate anywhere in the world. We’ll all be participating in an exploration, and everyone will be able to make music.

Can you explain what the instrument will look like?

It could look however you want; it works using open source computer code. But in my lab in Brighton I have had a large sphere built that you can step inside and use as a cockpit. In that sphere you will be surrounded by a 3D audio-visual display with a solar system that you can ‘fly’ through.

The objects in space will make sounds as you pass them. You’ll be able to discover all manner of sounds like notes, beats and polyrhythms. My job is to make it audible and explorable, then it’s up to the people how they play it.

Every player will hear something different, and will naturally go to the places in the instrument that make them feel something.

If we let go of our own creative ideas and expose humans the natural music that is already there but not audible, the experience could be a piece of music that potentially moves people in ways music never has before.

‘Concordia’ is based on the life work of astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the three laws of planetary motion and who revealed the astonishing link between the planets, mathematics and music exactly 400 years ago.

Read more about Concordia here, and to chip in and help bring the project to life, visit this page.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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