Astronomers Create Space Jazz From 20 Years of Galactic Data

Although jazz is famous for skilled indulgences in improvisation, its standards are still constructed to reflect a composer’s inspirations. The saxophone melody of “Take Five” is based off the street music of Turkey, while the thematic material underlying “Rhapsody in Blue” is the steely rhythm of the trains ridden by George Gershwin.

True to form, “Milky Way Blues” — a track released Monday for “Astronomy Sound of the Month” — is composed to reflect its own relatively tangible source material: the movement of gases through the galaxy.

Composed by astronomer and University of Massachusetts Amherst research professor, Mark Heyer, Ph.D., “Milky Way Blues” could be described as galactic jazz. Composed on a pentatonic scale, it incorporates data sets on molecular, galactic gas collected over the past 20 years by radio telescope surveys. To turn that data into music, Heyer created an algorithm that interpreted different phases of gas into music notes. In a statement released Friday, Heyer explains that the space between stars goes through three phases where its filled with different forms of gas — atomic, molecular, and ionized.

In the song, each gas phase is assigned a different tone and length of notes. The process took him several months — and Heyer swears that he didn’t fudge it. “I’ve been true to the data,” he explained on Friday, “I haven’t massaged it to 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.”

What the “Milky Way Blues” sounds like it as complicated as it source material. Do I sense a bit of the Peanuts theme? The slower moments of Super Mario? In a “why can’t you have it all” twist, the track would be pretty at home within this “Relaxing Super Mario Jazz Covers” compilation.

Regardless, if you dig it or are just curious about how the wonders of space can be funneled into notes — here, a saxophone plays the part of the ionized gas and acoustic bass plays the atomic gas part — it will be streamed on Astronomy Sound of the Month, a site created by University of California, Santa Barbara physicist Greg Salvensen, Ph.D. for the next 30 days.

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