Can we hear Music in Space?

Posted on September 9, 2007. Filed under: Music, Science, Spirituality |

On the topic of Sound, Vibration, and where these things occur, I received a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment from reader mrgnome on my post Singing DNA and the B-flat in Space.  By the time I’d answered his comment with one of my own, I had enough material for a whole new post, so I hope my friend does not mind being the cause of even more opining from me!

Here is his comment, and my response:

“Hmm, sound implies that there is air (or a gas), without air there can be no sound. To that extent vibration is not sound, but sound is an effect of vibration in air, perceived by our auditory system. The sound experience is just created by our brain if we really think about it. It’s just our perception of changes in air pressure. If we try to play tuba in space nothing is heard.

True, waves from any vibration can be transformed into air-waves (within some limits), and hence give us the perception of sound. But the matter->vibration->sound=”we are sound” isn’t really true in that direct sense.

Do you see where I’m coming from here?

mrgnome, I do get what you’re saying.  You are, as always, wise and discriminating, and you make me think.  In order to do justice to your comment, I looked up the definition of “sound”, and referred back to the article I had linked to in the original post. From a purely mechanical science point of view, you are indeed correct, and many would be content to leave it at that, but not me!  While researching, I looked at the wikipedia article on Sound.  While wiki isn’t the definitive source for all information in the cosmos, I often find it a useful place to start.  Here’s what they say:

Sound is a disturbance of mechanical energy that propagates through matter as a wave.”

So far, so good. They further explain, though: “…scientists and engineers use a wider definition of sound that includes low and high frequency vibrations in the air that cannot be heard by humans, and vibrations that travel through all forms of matter, gases, liquids, solids and plasmas.”

It’s that last word, “plasmas”, that caused me to look further.  In a table listing kinds of plasmas, the following are listed under Space and Astrophysical Plasmas:

The Sun and other stars; The solar wind; The interplanetary medium (the space between the planets); The Intergalactic medium (the space between galaxies); The lo-Jupiter flux-tube; Accretion discs; Interstellar nebulae.

OK, with all that going on in space, it doesn’t seem to be the total “vacuum” many of us were taught to believe.  Certainly if you played your tuba in space, I wouldn’t be able to hear it (too bad!), but, apparently, the sound could be recorded with an incredibly sensitive microphone, and then manipulated with audio equipment into something we could hear.  Granted, the result would only be an approximation of what your tuba actually “sounded” like, out there.  The article I referred to from Space.com says:

“Space, though not as efficient [as air], can also serve as a medium.  If a brave and clever astronaut could safely remove her helmet and shout into the cosmos, her voice would carry.  We wouldn’t be able to hear the sound because our ears aren’t sensitive enough…”

—Yes, but that doesn’t mean the sound is not there!  The question of how it is interpreted gets reverted back to a philosophical issue, in my opinion. The old koan, “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” comes to mind.  The notion that “we are sound”–well, I grant you I’m taking some poetic license there.  I extrapolated from theoretical physics that matter is not dense, (whether or not I myself am ‘dense’ is another question), but made up of vibrating particles, and that the structure underlying all matter is mostly empty space.  (There’s that word ‘space’, again).  I could as easily have said, “we are music”–which many musicians, including me, intuitively feel.  But again, that falls to philosophers or poets to decide.  I’m just not sure, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this site, that there is as much distinction between science, and philosophy, and the arts, as we’re led to believe.

I find myself asking how much or little accumulated matter we need to transmit vibration. Where does vibration originate if not from matter, and where does it go?  If those are at all valid questions, could it be from/to consciousness itself?  I feel yet another post coming on.

Thanks much, mrgnome, for encouraging this inquiry. I look forward to more.

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