Former Grateful Dead Drummer Mickey Hart Composes Music from the Sounds of the Universe

Hart teams up with a Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist to translate light and electromagnetic waves into octaves humans can hear

The Crab Pulsar
The Crab Pulsar, located in the Crab Nebula, is one of the celestial bodies Mickey Hart has translated into music. Image via NASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al.

What does the universe sound like? Contemplating the sky on a dark, clear night, a casual observer might balk at the question: without the hum of human life, how could the universe sound like anything? But the universe is, in fact, a noisy place. From collisions to pulsar starts, it emits an abundance of sounds. The only problem is that these sounds are in frequencies too low for the human ear—we are literally deaf to the symphony of cosmic music around us.

We won’t stay deaf much longer though, if any unlikely duo has its way. Mickey Hart, leader of the Mickey Hart band and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, has teamed up with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist George Smoot to turn the frequencies of the universe into music for human ears. Hart and Smoot “sonify” light and electromagnetic waves collected through various telescopes by shifting them up to octaves that humans can hear.

It’s a project that Hart stumbled upon while exploring the nature of rhythm. “I wrote two books in ’90 and ’91 called Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and I tried to find where the brotherhood and the sisterhood of rhythm came from,” Hart said at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which hosted a screening of Rhythms of the Universe and a panel with Hart and Smoot, the film’s makers, on Sunday. “I went back through the historical records, and of course, in order to really find out where vibrations come from, you had to go back to the singularity—you had to go back to the Big Bang.”

Going back to the Big Bang isn’t an easy task, but George Smoot and others at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California began making huge strides forward in understanding cosmic microwave background radiation, or the thermal radiation leftover from the expansion of the Big Bang. Cosmic microwave background is literally light emitted from the Big Bang, which has traveled more than 14 billion years to where we can detect it today. By detecting cosmic background radiation, astrophysicists and cosmologists can literally look at the light—and particles—from the beginning of space and time.

“We didn’t know exactly where it was or when it was, until George pinned the tail on the donkey so to speak and found the cosmic background radiation,” Hart explained. “So now I had the start of the story. I had beat one—the moment of creation, when the beat started. It was a beautiful timeline. Any rhythmist worth his salt could not turn away from the idea of tracing the history of time and space.”

This isn’t the first time Smoot and Hart have crossed paths—Smoot used to date someone whose best friend was the sound engineer for the Grateful Dead—but this is the first time the two have collaborated professionally. When, later on their careers, the two encountered one another working in sound preservation, Smoot mentioned to Hart that he had been involved in a project that converted astronomical data, in the form of acoustic wavess, into audible sound. Hart was immediately intrigued.

“It’s inspiration for music, and he’s always trying to write and create new stuff,” Smoot said. Hart took Smoot’s data, and, with the help of others at the Lawrence Lab and elsewhere, began converting the data into music. Data for the music was collected from a wide range of celestial bodies—our own sun, various pulsating stars (known as pulsars), distant galaxies and, of course, the cosmic microwave background—Hart’s beat one.

“The information that was gathered from radio telescopes was transferred into the computers, and we turned radiation and light into sound,” Hart explained.

Sonifications—like the one below, which features data from a Pulsar B0531+21 (colloquially known as the Crab Pulsar)—contain valuable scientific information, but aren’t the most amusing to listen to. The sonification for the pulsar represents one of the most musical of the raw scientific data, since pulsars are by nature one of the most rhythmic celestial objects (in fact some pulsars are so rhythmically accurate that they rival atomic clocks).

Other sonifications, however, like those of solar winds or microwave background radiation, are less rhythmic and appear, at least in their raw form, less like what we recognize as music. In order to render these sonifications pleasurable, Hart enlisted the help of members of his band, the Mickey Hart Band, and proceeded to take some artistic liberties with the raw scientific data.

“What you’re seeing is a step along the way to the vision that we put out before, which was that this would be both entertainment and education in different levels. Many sounds are very educational, but not so entertaining—there’s information there but it’s not very pretty,” Smoot explained. “You hear a pulsar, and it has a kind of heartbeat, whereas most of the other things you hear are being made into art. You hear Mickey being a creative musician.”

The end product was the twelve-track Mysterium Tremendum, which was released in April 2012. The album included sonification with, as Hart describes it, “Earth music” added to create an enjoyable listening experience. “This brings together art and science, which is a very powerful combination,” Hart said. “I try to use as little amount of whole Earth instruments as I could, but still make it entertaining.”

After the release of the album, Hart and Smoot continued, creating a multimedia representation of the music with a video, Rhythms of the Universe. The 20-minute film features high-definition photographs of celestial elements shown alongside Hart’s sonified music—so when viewers see the Crab Pulsar, they hear the sounds that go along with it.

Both Hart and Smoot hope that the video will eventually make its way into educational settings and inspire the minds of young scientists and artists. But, for now, Hart is focused on its rhythm—rhythms having held sway over the musician for much of his life.

“The whole universe is based on vibrations—it’s the basic element of all life, and rhythm is controlled vibration,” Hart said. “Everything has a sound and a light. Everything that moves is alive; if it isn’t it’s inanimate, it’s dead. And when the rhythm stops, we stop.”

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