The Music of Physics
Music is a language of emotions that goes beyond science. It propagates in space and time, and is heard by our ears and interpreted by our minds and hearts. There is music of the universe, music of the human soul, music created by instruments and voices organized with sequences of sounds, and the music of physics.
A frequent approach is to analyze music in terms of acoustics: vibrations, rhythm, resonances, wavelengths and frequencies, pitch, overtones, dissonance, and harmony. But acoustical physics is not the subject of this article. To show the difference between the physics of music and the music of physics we begin with the scientific approach to music of Pythagoras and his mystical yet mathematical philosophy based on the connection between music and numbers. He concluded that all of nature is in harmony, and thus arises from numerology. The Sun, the Moon and the planets revolve around the Earth in their spheres, creating a musical harmony. Legend says that Pythagoras actually heard the music of the celestial movements, and therefore was able to establish the consonant musical intervals presented in his famous Music of the Spheres. For some, this is just a mathematical concept; others believe that after deep meditation it is indeed possible to hear such music of physics, perhaps not by ear, but spiritually.
Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Divine Monochord shows the music of the Ptolemaic Universe tuned by the hand of God. (copy from the Archives of Vanderbilt University).
In Aristotle’s vision of the Universe and celestial movements, the spheres were concentric; each made of the fifth element, the aether, and moved by a god. Ptolemy in his important treatise Harmonics described the existing music of the spheres, and introduced a planetary concept of the Cosmos in order to explain the irregularities observed in the motion of the planets. Johannes Kepler 15 centuries later applied the concept of the music of the spheres, and defined in his work from 1619, Harmonices Mundi the music of physics: “The heavenly motions…are nothing but a continuous song for several voices, perceived not by the ear but by the intellect”.
One can only wonder which music Nicolaus Copernicus heard while changing the order of the World during his work on De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, devoted to the revolutions of the celestial spheres.
The heavenly sounds and harmony of celestial bodies have inspired many artists, including musicians; this is how the music of physics is created! The British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) reflected this music in The Planets, an orchestral suite with seven movements written between 1914 and 1916. However, the concept and inspiration of this music were based on astrology rather than astronomy. The music expresses the impact of the planets upon the human psyche and presents different colors of emotions and various characteristics of each planet.Samples of this music can be enjoyed at—
- Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- Music of Planets is illustrated by a video collection of NASA/JPL/ESA missions to the planets in the Solar System1, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxEekUy0Ehk&feature=related
Music can also paint a portrait and even picture a physics experiment. Philip Glass 2 described his composition The Light as “A portrait in music of the scientists Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley and their studies of the velocity of light through their memorable experiments concluded at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, 1887”. This piece was composed to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Michelson-Morley experiment. Peter Michelson 3, the grand nephew of Nobel Laureate Albert Michelson, at the ceremony in Cleveland Symphony Hall, said: “This was Philip Glass’ musical version of the Michelson-Morley experiment. For me, it just fit beautifully. You could kind of hear the light sloshing around in the interferometer. (…) It was a union between music and science that I thought was fascinating” 4 . In the program note the composer wrote that “In a way, these experiments formed in my mind an almost ‘before and after’ sequence. The ‘before’ represented something like 19th century physics. The ‘after’ marks the onset of modern scientific research. Perhaps this may appear somewhat simplified from a scientific point of view, but for a musician it provided a dramatic contrast. (…) This is a portrait not only of the two men for whom the experiments are named but also that historical moment heralding the beginning of the modern scientific period”.
The Newsletter of the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory, Stanford University, 4 announced on November 2, 2009 that “The music of the spheres will take on a new meaning during the 2009 Fermi International Science Symposium to be held in Washington, D. C., and November. 2-5, 2009”. Peter Michelson, inspired by The Light used music to highlight this symposium, a celebration of one-year of scientific achievements of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, GLAST 5. Nolan Gasser 6 composed the GLAST Prelude, Op. 12, for brass quintet, to mark the launch of GLAST in June 2008, and the one-year mission of the telescope was concluded by Gasser’s Cosmic Reflection: A Narrated Symphony, Op. 15.
The music conveys the excitement of all the steps of the project, and includes themes of the national anthems of the collaborating countries. To enhance the artistic performance Rich Melnick from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center created a video synchronized with the music. This is a beautiful piece of art appreciated not only by a physicist. Its emotional contents can be enjoyed over and over again, since it is available at
It was a challenging task to tell the history of the Universe through music. The narrative was prepared by physicist and author Lawrence Krauss 7 and poetically mastered by Pierre Schwob 8. Peter Michelson, spiritus movens of this monumental artistic tribute to science, said “Music, science and the visual arts as well are closely connected – both intellectually and emotionally – to the excitement of discovery in fundamental research” 4.
What can be more fundamental in physics than the fundamental constants? Is it possible to illustrate them using music as a medium of expression? Physicist Jerzy Warczewski 9 explored this idea when he approached the famous contemporary Polish composer Wojciech Kilar 10, suggesting the commemoration of the World Year of Physics 2005, the 100th anniversary of the Annus Mirabilis, by composing new music for that occasion. The musical motif chosen by physicist Warczewski and used by composer Kilar were fundamental physical constants as described in the accompanying article, quite a contrast with celestial motions and heavenly harmony.
Copy of the first page of the music of Sinfonia de motu, hand written and autographed by its composer Wojciech Kilar (from private archives of Jerzy Warczewski)
1 Performance by the Skidmore College Orchestra (http://www.musopen.com), video from NASA/JPL at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov and the ESA/Hubble Space Telescope Information Center at http://www.spacetelescope.org
2 American music composer, considered as one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century
3 Stanford astrophysicist, Principal Investigator for the Fermi Large Area Space Telescope project and Director of Stanford’s Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory (HEPL)
4 Stanford University, HEPL, November 2, 2009, http://hepl.Stanford.edu/cosmic_reflection.html
5 Renamed on August 26 2008 in honor of Enrico Fermi
6 American composer, pianist and musicologist (Ph.D. from Stanford University)
7 Professor of Physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at the Arizona State University
8 Founder of the Classical Archives, the largest classical music site on the web, interested in the latest advances in astrophysics, cosmology, and in foreign policy research, Asteroid (32890) Schwob has been named after him, author of several books and holder of several patents
9 Professor of physics, Silesian University, Katowice, Poland; editor-in-chief of the Advances in Physics, the magazine of the Polish Physical Society.
10 Composer widely known for his symphonic work and film scores (for Coppola’s, Wajda’s and Polański’s movies, for example).
Lidia Smentek retired after four decades at Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland) and is a Professor at Vanderbilt University.
Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.