Listening to the Planets

Seth Jarvis

You can’t use your sense of smell to explore Jupiter, you can’t use your tongue to taste the Great Nebula in Orion, and you can’t use your sense of touch to feel the texture of the rapidly spinning pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula.

No, from where we are the only way that we can experience these things is through the photons they emit, and whether we receive these photons with telescopes that view the universe in radio wavelengths, or infrared, or visible light, or X-ray, they all constitute a form of “sight.”

BUT… we can, without too much difficulty, bring our sense of sound into our experience of the cosmos by converting the radio signals naturally generated by stuff in outer space into sounds that vary in pitch, timbre and amplitude and playing them on a loudspeaker.

A perfect example of this can be found in this video, which offers an audio interpretation of the Voyager 2 spacecraft approaching the planet Saturn in 1981:

The internet is full of this kind of audio interpretation of astronomical phenomena, but I also want to call your attention to another, and equally interesting, way to “listen” to the cosmos… music composed by human beings here on Earth. The classic example of this is of course “The Planets,” an orchestral suite by English composer Gustav Holst.

Holst’s interpretation of the planets derives from their mythology and astrological interpretations, not their real-world physical characteristics. Mars isn’t actually a blood-splattered place that is home to a god of war – it’s just red because its surface is heavily oxidized.  Listening to Holst’s “Mars – The Bringer of War” movement, you can tell it’s Mars’ mythology that’s driving the composition.

However, even the mythologies of the planets of our solar system derive to a certain degree from real-world observation. Mercury orbits the Sun faster than any other planet, so myths about Mercury naturally refer to great speed, and Holst’s musical representation of Mercury expresses this.

Venus is a goddess of love and beauty because… well… just look at it!

Venus is jaw-dropping gorgeous these days in the pre-dawn eastern sky.

Holst’s interpretation of Saturn reflects the mythologies surrounding the planet, chiefly derived from ancient observations of planets visible without a telescope, when Saturn, the farthest naked-eye visible planet, moved through the heavens more slowly than any other, and was therefore thought to represent an old man shuffling slowly across the sky.

Which is why the YouTube video of the Voyager spacecraft’s 1981 encounter with Saturn is so evocative. It sounds like Saturn is supposed to sound; slow, graceful, and a bit mysterious – just as Holst imagined it when he composed that particular movement.

What music would _you_ compose to do justice to something this large, distant and beautiful?

And here’s what’s extra cool about “listening” to the planets as imagined by Holst – because his symphonic interpretation of the planets was written in 1914-1916, it predates the discovery of Pluto in 1930.

Now that Pluto has been demoted in status so that it is now classified as a Dwarf Planet, Holst’s ending of his Planets suite with the eerily haunting “Neptune” movement is astronomically correct. Neptune is the outermost real planet in our solar system.

I guess now it’s time, a century after Holst, for someone to compose “The Minor Planets” suite for the exotic worlds of Pluto, Eris, Ceres and Haumea. These are little worlds, so maybe the music should be written for a small orchestra, or the Jupiter String Quartet?






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2 thoughts on “Listening to the Planets

  1. Hi, I just love listening to Saturn and how beautiful a planet it is. Now I want to listen to “The Planets,” an orchestral suite by English composer Gustav Holst.

  2. Holst’s “Planets” represents a timeless work that has been used in planetariums since the 1930′s. I remember using it when I first started giving planetarium shows (a time that I won’t specify!). Elements of his “Mars” piece have been used in many movies but my favorite works are “Mercury” and “Jupiter”. Very dynamic works that lend themselves to great visuals!

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