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The Universe of Sound Data Sonification is NASA’s project that takes data and images and translates them into sounds. After releasing computer-made “space songs,” NASA has gone a step further. They teamed up with a composer and created a real symphony based on the “sounds” of the Milky Way. How cool is that?

What is sonification?

Simply put, sonification is a process of turning visual data into sounds. Scientists do it through mathematical mapping. They take the pixels and translate them into different kinds of sound beds. In some cases, it displays time, space, loudness, and pitch more clearly than images alone. Researchers can use sonification alone or combine them with pictures to get the information they need.

The Milky Way Symphony

Dr Kimberly Arcand is a visualization scientist for NASA’s Chandra Observatory at the Center for Astrophysics. “I’m always kind of looking for new things that we can try, new ways to understand things, new ways to process information,” She says. So, she teamed up with composer Sophie Kastner. Based on NASA’s Milky Way photo, Kastner wrote a piece Where Parallel Lines Converge.

“My piece centers around the idea of spiraling,” the composer explains. “The initial plan was to take the original sonifications and translate them as accurately as possible into pieces to be played by musicians.” According to Arcand, Kastner brought a unique perspective to the project.

“To me, it just seemed like this brilliant idea of converting data to sound,” Kastner explains. “Not only for visually impaired people who then can appreciate these images that they can’t necessarily see, but also as a supplemental tool for someone who’s looking at the image you can then hear it. It was different once I started thinking about it from a composer’s point of view.”

“The title ‘Where Parallel Lines Converge’ came from a poem that I read by Sarah Howe. Black holes where parallel lines will meet whose stark horizon even starlight bent in its tracks can’t resist.”

“It’s like 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.”

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Creating the symphony

Kastner focused on moments in the data that would make it a bit more bite-sized for an ensemble to play. She focused on significant sections of the image where there was a great story to tell and a fantastic sound bed to make from it.

“I was working with an ensemble of about seven musicians I can’t necessarily do this in the same way, taking the data and incorporating computer software… okay let me use the similar process to what the original sonifications did, but add my own spin to it because I also wanted to make it a piece of music suited to the instruments I was working with. The concept of using data and then translating it directly to sound was a really interesting idea to me. There’s this huge emotional layer to looking at these images of space — oh my God I’m so small in comparison to this vast object! It’s such a large feeling to have. I wanted to dig into those emotions.”

Montreal-based Ensemble Éclat conducted by Charles-Eric Fontaine recorded the piece on July 19, 2023 at McGill University.

“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.”

Kastner hopes that this is just the first of many composition projects based on Chandra’s data sonification collection. She is also looking to bring in other musical collaborators who are interested in using the data in their pieces. And if you are a musician and want to try playing this sonification at home, you can find the sheet music here.

For more NASA sonifications, check out the links below:


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