Star Songs Plucked From The Cosmos
June 1, 2013

From Data To Music: Website Features Songs Created Through Sonification

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have blended science, technology and art to create a unique new website that allows people to listen to original musical compositions crafted from cosmic x-rays.

The Star Songs website was published by research associate Gerhard Sonnert, who worked with University of Glasgow postdoctoral student Wanda Diaz-Merced and composer Volkmar Studtrucker on the project.

According to the CfA, Diaz-Merced is blind and as a result became involved in sonification — the process of converting astrophysical data into sound. Studtrucker then took the results of her work and turned them into music.

“Diaz-Merced lost her sight in her early 20s while studying physics. When she visited an astronomy lab and heard the hiss of a signal from a radio telescope, she realized that she might be able to continue doing the science she loved,” the Center explained. “She now works with a program called xSonify, which allows users to present numerical data as sound and use pitch, volume, or rhythm to distinguish between different data values.”

During a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts based institution, Diaz-Merced worked with data obtained from the NASA Chandra X-ray Observatory. The observatory was studying EX Hydrae, which is a binary system consisting of a normal star and a white dwarf that is also known as a cataclysmic variable because it tends to fluctuate in X-ray brightness as the white dwarf consumes gas from its companion.

She used xSonify to convert that Chandra X-ray data into musical notes, but according to the CfA, the results sounded “random.” However, Sonnert believed that they could be tweaked to sound more appealing, so he got in touch with Studtrucker. The composer selected some of the sonified notes to create short musical passages, then added in harmonies from different musical styles.

“Sound files that began as atonal compositions transformed into blues jams and jazz ballads, to name just two examples of the nine songs produced,” the institute explained. “The project shows that something as far away and otherworldly as an X-ray-emitting cataclysmic variable binary star system can be significant to humans for two distinct reasons — one scientific and one artistic.”

“We're still extracting meaning from data, but in a very different way,” added Sonnert.