‘Milky Way Blues’: Astronomer Composes Galactic Jazz Piece That Lets You ‘Hear’ How Our Galaxy Rotates

Listen to the strange jazzy sounds made by interstellar gas as it moves through our galaxy.

Illustration of the Milky Way galaxy.
Alex Mit / Shutterstock

Listen to the strange jazzy sounds made by interstellar gas as it moves through our galaxy.

If you’re a science buff who’s also into eerie jazz music, then you’ll want to hit “play” on the video below as soon as you’re done reading this article.

Astronomer Mark Heyer, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has composed what will henceforth be known as galactic jazz — a musical composition that translates the rotating movements of our galaxy into sounds.

This novel composition is a mash-up of science and art and uses an algorithm to convert astronomical data into musical notes, explains a UMass Amherst news release.

The composition is titled “Milky Way Blues” and will be featured for the following 30 days on the Astronomy Sound of the Month website.

This galactic jazz piece expresses the way interstellar gas moves through our galaxy, each note reflecting the speed of gas as it rotates around the center of the Milky Way, reveals Heyer.

“This musical expression lets you ‘hear’ the motions of our Milky Way galaxy,” the astronomer points out.

To create his musical masterpiece, Heyer assigned a different note to each spectrum of interstellar gas observed in its atomic, molecular, and ionized phases. By looking at the velocity and intensity of the gas emissions in each of the three phases, the astronomer calculated the notes’ pitch and length.

As a result, molecular gas was turned into woodblocks and piano; atomic gas became acoustic bass music and ionized gas was translated into saxophone, Newsweek reports.

Heyer’s creation builds on the many snapshots other astronomers have taken of the Milky Way over time, adding movement to those images to reveal just how dynamic our galaxy really is.

The astronomical data used in this composition comes from 20 years’ worth of radio telescope observations, which are played in the pentatonic scale by various digital instruments.

“I’ve been true to the data, I haven’t massaged it to make it sound nice, but by turning what we actually observe with a radio telescope into a musical scale it gives us familiar tones that sound surprisingly like music with which we’re familiar,” Heyer says in the news release.

Why jazz music and not any other genre? The composer explains it himself by revealing that he chose to write the cosmic jazz piece in a minor key because “when I heard the bass notes it sounded jazzy and blue.”

According to UMass Amherst, Heyer’s two-minute cosmic jazz composition took several months to create. The animation featured in the video below is the work of astronomer Greg Salvesen, from the University of California in Santa Barbara, who collaborated on the project by adding visual elements to the musical piece.