Space Music: Symphonies of the Planets

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED September 15, 2009
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It’s fascinating to think that some of the most beautiful and haunting music I’ve heard in my life isn’t the work of British electronic artists. Nope, what I’m listening to at this very moment was recorded by two automated NASA probes — and all the music itself was produced by the planets and moons of our solar systems.

Yep, I’m listening to “Symphonies of the Planets,” the five-volume collection of ambient space drone music released in 1992 by Lasterlight Records. When Voyager I and II made their 5-billion-mile journey across the solar system, the probes recorded electromagnetic waves in the soundless void of space surrounding Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.

For instance, the probes picked up the interaction of solar wind on the planets magnetospheres, which releases ionic particles with an audible vibration frequency. Essentially, we can then translate these waves into sound waves and put them on an album. The probes also recorded:

I really can’t go any further till you hear the sounds for yourself (click below). Play this YouTube track and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. The probes recorded all this data on magnetometers, plasma detectors, low-energy charged particle detectors, radio antennas and instruments to measure cosmic rays and plasma waves. Then, some uncredited artist or artists arranged selections from these recordings into a more musical form. So you’re not listening to the raw data here, but rather an audible collage constructed from various pieces.

Sadly, the albums are out of print and mostly available in used or bootleg form; fortunately, a friend of mine had a copy, so here we are. Whether you’re a space junky or an electronic music fan, you really need to get your hands on these.

Similar to all this is the musical work of Italian astrophysicist Fiorella Terenzi, who mixes traditional musical elements in with all the cosmic stuff. Her vibe is far more new age and less ambient/drone, so it’s not as much my cup of tea. But hey, Time Magazine apparently dubbed her a cross between Carl Sagan and Madonna, so what’s not to love? She also admits to “fantasizing about Orion like (her) celestial lover.” So hey, if there are any single nebulae out there interested in meeting that special new age, nerdy blond bombshell, then let me direct you to Dr. Terenzi’s  Web site. Oh, and do check out some interview and concert footage:

I can’t help but assume the creators of BBC’s “Look Around You” were inspired by Terenzi when they wrote this bit from their Music 2000 episode, which featured Toni Baxter, a “theoretical physicist from the McBritish Institute.”


About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks.com, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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