Humans are used to data being represented visually through charts, graphs and maps but they are less accustomed to information being conveyed through sound.

This conversion can be made through data sonification, which transforms data points into sound properties such as pitch, timbre and rhythm.

Former NASA researcher Snook (left) performs with Sian Cross. Image Credit: Abbey Road Red
Former NASA researcher Snook (left) performs with Sian Cross. Image Credit: Abbey Road Red

Professor Kelly Snook believes this process could reveal the music of the solar system. 

Snook was a NASA research scientist planning trips to the Moon and Mars before parlaying her interstellar expertise into developing a musical instrument that could put her theory to the test.

The result is Kepler's Concordia, which Snook describes as a combination of a modular synthesiser, a cockpit, and a control room that is played through a combination of physical and virtual controls.

The instrument was named after Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German astronomer who was a key figure of the Scientific Revolution. This year is the 400th anniversary of Kepler's Harmonies of the World, a seminal book in the history of astronomy that describes how musical harmonies are present in planetary motion.

The Concordia – Latin for harmony – is designed to translate the data on these interplanetary patterns into sounds.

Snook has been using the dataset to explore the parallels between the geometries in the solar system and those in music theory, such as the Fibonacci Sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two that preceded it. Evidence suggests that Mozart used this "Golden Ratio" to arrange the structure of some of his most celebrated piano sonatas.

Another example of these mathematical patterns in musical theory is the circle of fifths, a visual representation of the relationships between musical keys, which Snook mapped to the hexagonal geometry of Uranus and Jupiter.

At a hackathon hosted by Abbey Road Red, the music tech incubation programme at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London, Snook presented this early prototype of Concordia.

"It was immediately this really cool baseline that just emerged without me having to define any key or anything – it just created its own repeating pattern that sounded like a pop song almost," she tells Techworld.

"That was encouraging to me because it just gave me something immediately to explore that was really fun and pleasing to listen to. There's nothing worse than a really horrible sonification that makes you not want to sit with the data."

The music of the spheres

The Kepler Concordia is not the first musical instrument created by Snook. She was also a founding member of the team behind the gloves, a wearable instrument used by artists from Imogen heap to Arianna Grande to create music with the gestures of their hands. 

Snook is now developing a DIY version of the gloves that could become another method of controlling the Concordia.

She plans to make the code behind the instrument open source, so that anyone can build their own instruments to play the data.

"Eventually I would love for time to be something that you actually control as you fly through it, and that the dataset itself becomes interactive in a way that allows you to choose whether you want it to be static or drawing it in real-time, and allows you to fly through it like you would fly a spaceship through space," she says.

Her ultimate objective is to revive Keplar's vision of astronomy as a multidisciplinary pursuit that draws on both science and arts to explore reality and reflect the message of unity that is in Harmonies of the World.

This concept grounds her work in something more significant than inventing a new musical instrument.

"It's a tool for us to understand ourselves and to understand the universe and to find oneness," she says.