Culture

Our solar system sounds like a depressed Radiohead cover band

An experiment that converts NASA data into music reveals how sad a planet can be.

Culture

Our solar system sounds like a depressed Radiohead cover band

An experiment that converts NASA data into music reveals how sad a planet can be.
Culture

Our solar system sounds like a depressed Radiohead cover band

An experiment that converts NASA data into music reveals how sad a planet can be.

Our solar system is cold, mostly lifeless, and kind of depressing. So perhaps not surprisingly, it also loves Radiohead. At least, that is, according to a new project that created a composition based on the orbits of its planets.

Its apparent bleak taste in music was discovered by Matt Russo, an astrophysicist at Seneca College in Toronto. Over the last year, he’s been turning NASA data into musical compositions — basically, feeding orbital data into computer software, which interprets movements as notes/rhythm, and outputs them as movies/midi files. After putting data from Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars into the program, it sounded remarkably like Radiohead’s “True Love Waits,” a famously melancholy song in the band’s catalogue that circulated in various forms for two decades before finally getting an official release in 2016.

“When I listened to it, it happened to be in the right key, and very close to the right tempo for ‘True Love Waits,’ and so it just instantly jumped out at me,” Russo told The Outline. “That it’s almost an identical intro to the same song, same exact harmony, same notes.”

He recorded the solar system cover version with Andrew Santaguida and Dan Tamayo, under the name SYSTEM Sounds, and enlisted musician Thom Gill to impersonate Thom Yorke. They published the song to their website on Thursday, complete with details about its creation. Their version is pretty uncanny.

Russo got the idea when he saw Tamayo’s computer simulations of Trappist-1, a planetary system 40 light-years away. “There are these remarkable patterns in Trappist-1’s orbits,” Russo explained. “So all seven planets are coordinated, they’re all kind of ticking in a fixed, repeating rhythm.”

The video was a hit, and inspired Russo to keep going. “I realized there was way more music out there, waiting to be heard, and so we tackled a few other systems like Saturn’s rings, and the Pleiades star cluster, but everyone wanted to know what the solar system sounded like.”

It works (roughly) like this: Every time a planet completes a full rotation around the sun, it plays a note. The speed of each planet’s orbit is increased, so it takes less than a year to hear each note. In the case of “True Love Waits,” for example, Mars moves at 34 rotations per minute, or bpm. The notes each planet plays are also based on their movement — if you speed them up millions or billions of times, their motion creates musical pitches. The data for the planetary bodies, solar systems, etc., are taken from NASA’s HORIZONS catalog. The software they use to create the compositions is available over on Github. It’s open source, and Russo encourages anyone to load in their own systems.

Using this method, our solar system required some pitch correction. According to Russo, while Mars and Earth are fairly close to musical notes, the other planets were noticeably out of tune — Venus is 35 percent sharp, and Mercury is 42 percent flat. “It was close, but for the solar system you do have to correct it,” he says. “So basically I’m just playing on the closest piano note, otherwise it’s a little crunchy.”

Our universe spends its time slowly, quietly humming one of the most depressing songs ever recorded.

One odd detail about our solar system’s song choice: It’s the most depressing Radiohead song. In 2017, analytics specialist Charlie Thompson attempted to mathematically determine which was the saddest. His process involved digging through Spotify’s audio stats and running sentiment analysis on all of their song lyrics via Genius, and measuring them in what he called a “gloom index.” The result is certainly not definitive — it requires a decent amount of subjective interpretation, just like the SYSTEM Sounds compositions — but it’s a pretty close approximation. Of their 160-song catalog, “True Love Waits” is the saddest song from one of the saddest bands.

So: Our universe spends its time slowly, quietly humming one of the most depressing songs ever recorded. What does it mean? Nothing, most likely — the universe is chaotic and random and meaningless. “I don’t think there’s any real cosmic significance,” Russo agreed. Still, that doesn’t stop it from conveying some kind of emotional resonance. “I kind of see it as a love song between the sun and the planets.”

Perhaps the most profound part of the piece is that it’s inherently entropic, sort of like a cosmic version of William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops.” The song slowly breaks apart as the sun burns out, over the course of billions of years. And then, when the sun expands and torches everything in our solar system, as all known life is extinguished, one last sad chord will vibrate out into the nothingness of space.

This post has been updated to correct a misspelling of Thom Yorke’s name.

Joe Veix is a writer in California. Follow him on Twitter.
Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.