Thursday, 5 August 2010

The (real) Music of the Spheres...

One or two of the blogs I follow often feature space-related posts (you know who you are!) which I really enjoy, having grown up in the era when manned (they were all men then) space exploration consisted of more than orbiting the Earth (I speak as someone whose parents got him out of bed as a pre-school child to see the first Moon Landing in July 1969!). Space exploration was a significant part of the zeitgeist back then - even mashed potato adverts used alien space explorers to advertise their wares:

("For mash, get Smash".
Probably a copyrighted image, but the BBC website didn't quote any with this picture)

And I guess that, as a young child, my early exposure to NASA's finest was the reason I was so obsessed with the Clangers (if you are under 30, think "knitted space people living on a bare rock planet, fed green soup from a crater by a soup dragon"). One element of the Clangers that resonated with my young mind was frequent references to "the music of the spheres", a haunting space concert that drifted through the ether (it was a vacuum, so how did that work?) and was enjoyed, concert-like by the assembled Clangers. It was only when I was much older that I realised this was a very grown-up reference for a children's programme, as the Music of the Spheres is a ancient philosophical concept, Musica universalis (literally universal music) in which the relative proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—are regarded as, in th words of Wikipedia's entry, "a form of musica (the Medieval Latin name for music). This 'music' is not literally audible, but a harmonic and/or mathematical and/or religious concept." Perhaps an ancient Greek idea to start with, it has been persistent in history - Apparently, Johannes Kepler used the concept of the music of the spheres in his Harmonices Mundi in 1619, where he related astrology and harmonics.

Although the Music of the Spheres was not intended literally to be music, this is not so in the Clangers! Their ears were tuned to hearing the music of the spheres and, in the very final episode of the Clangers (which you can see below or here on Youtube), three Clangers in a wonderful "music boat" spacecraft assemble a load of instruments and play a concert of the music of the spheres in space. Heady stuff for a young mind already immersed in Apollo missions!

So, with all that background and baggage, I fell hook, line and sinker in love with the Solar Beat project, a website produced by White Vinyl Design, and which looks like this:

Solar Beat transforms the Solar System into a music generator, a literal Music of the Spheres - each planet is assigned a different note, which is played each time it completes a circuit and, as each takes a different time to complete a circuit around the Sun, the resulting tunes are variable, occasionally melodic and pleasing! You can play with Solar Beat here. And I say "play" as you can change the rotation rates to slow down or speed up the generation of notes. I sometimes just set this running in the background while I am working on the PC, running quite slowly and producing not-quite random music of the spheres!

Incidentally, the Music of the Spheres featured in David Tennant's Dr Who, in a short episode of that title (see below), created in 2008 to support a Dr Who music event at the Albert Hall as part of the Proms (distinguished for Dr Who fanboys and fangirls, if you watch all seven minutes of it, by closing with the original, and better, Ron Grainger version of the theme tune!!!).


  1. Seems like the ancient geeks have a lot to answer for..........


  2. Ancient geeks - I like it! cheers Al!

  3. Wonderful post! I cannot believe how beautiful the solar beat is, thanks for sharing that, it is very restful. Do you know any more about the key they chose? I can work it out but thought I would ask if you had any more info?

    Anyway something I will enjoy googling later.

  4. Hi Dancin' - thanks very much! 'Fraid I can't help with your query though - I'm a musical idiot and don't know my Ash from my Elgar, so to speak, when it comes to keys etc. You could contact White Vinyl Design directly (they are googlable) and I'm sure they'll tell you more! Cheers, SNB


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