What would music sound like on Mars? We spoke to a planetary scientist to find…

May 20, 2022, 5:30 p.m. | Updated: May 20, 2022, 6:05 PM

What does the music sound like when played in the atmosphere of Mars?

Image: Getty

Dr. Nina Lanza explains to Classic FM why symphony orchestras would sound “off” on Mars.

The sounds we hear on Earth are not the same as those we would hear on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has been surveying the surface of Mars since February 2021 and recording sounds since the day after it landed on the Red Planet.

The sounds that returned revealed that Mars is silent. So quiet, in fact, that scientists wondered if the microphone had been damaged and no longer worked.

Sound on Mars is altered due to three main differences; atmosphere, temperature and density. We spoke to Dr. Nina Lanza of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, USA to find out more about how music would be affected on the Red Planet…

Read more: 7 Times Classical Music Was Inspired By Space

While Earth’s atmosphere is made up largely of nitrogen, with about 21% oxygen, and an even smaller amount of other gases, such as carbon dioxide, Mars’ atmosphere is made up of 96 % carbon dioxide. Mars also has a lower temperature than Earth and a lower density.

Dr Lanza explains: “First of all, things are going to look a lot calmer on Mars overall, because there are just fewer molecules there. [due to the density]so these have to work harder to make a traveling wave.

Last month, a study found that the speed of sound is slower on Mars than on Earth, however, unlike Earth, Mars has two speeds of sound. On Earth, the speed of sound is around 767 mph (343 meters per second), while on Mars the lower pitched sounds travel at around 537 mph (240 meters per second), while the higher pitched sounds travel moving at 559 mph (250 meters per second).

“Sounds at different frequencies at different heights are also going to be attenuated differently than they are on land,” Dr. Lanza continues. “In general, high-pitched sounds are quieter and low-pitched sounds are louder than on Earth, which is especially true on Mars due to the carbon dioxide atmosphere.

“If you listen to very high-pitched music, it will sound [very] twangy and quiet…while the lower notes will sound a bit more robust. »

Read more: Hear the weird and real sounds of every planet in our solar system

NASA's Perseverance rover lands on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars.

Image: Photographic illustration by NASA via Getty Images

Thinking of an orchestra, where higher-pitched instruments typically play the melody, such as violins, while lower-pitched instruments complement the accompaniment, Lanza says listening to this type of ensemble would sound “off” on Mars.

“I think gravity would also make a really big difference,” adds Lanza, “for musicians who typically play larger instruments.

“Musicians would find their instruments much easier to lift due to their beefy ground strength, so this difference might put them off when trying to play”.

Read more: What actually happens when you play a musical instrument in space?

Dr. Nina Lanza and the Martian Community

Growing up in Boston, a city known for its multitude of world-renowned institutions of higher learning such as Harvard and MIT, Lanza became interested in space from an early age, as she had the opportunity to attend free events at universities on the subject as a child.

When Lanza was seven, her parents took her to watch Halley’s comet pass by in 1986. “I’ll never forget what it was like to look through a telescope and think, my God, there has like something there!”, recalls the scientist.

Fast forward to an undergraduate degree in astrology, it wasn’t until finishing his bachelor’s degree that Lanza realized geology was his best path to further explore space.

“Geology is where I feel like I belong,” admits Lanza. “I really want to understand what’s out there, and studying rocks helps us do that.”

Comet 1P/Halley (Halley's Comet) taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW)

Comet 1P/Halley (Halley’s Comet) taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW).

Photo: Aliyah

Lanza is working on two Mars projects; the planetary scientist is the principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument aboard the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover and a member of the science team for the SuperCam instrument aboard the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

Both instruments are used to quickly identify the type of rocks being studied and are straight out of your wildest space nerd dreams. The cameras fire lasers at the rocks and vaporize a small portion of the material, in order to collect data on the chemical composition of Martian rocks and “soil”. Unfortunately, Lanza informs us that the sound made by the lasers during this process is more of a high-pitched snapping sound than the somewhat expected Sci-Fi-esque “pew pew.”

This high-pitched clapping sound is useful to Lanza, whose main area of ​​research is “trying to figure out how we can use this laser zapping sound to figure out whether or not there’s a very thin coating on this rock, because you can hear the sound change as you move from one composition to another.

Since scientists cannot access rocks on Mars themselves, using this acoustic dataset helps extract as much information as possible from the rocks.

Sound is not only an important part of Lanza’s data collection, but also of other scientists’ research on the Red Planet. On the SuperCam, a microphone is attached to the back of its mast, which picks up not only the sound of lasers vaporizing rocks, but also general sounds emitted on Mars.

“We weren’t really sure that this microphone was going to work,” says Lanza, “because the Martian atmosphere is much less dense and has a different composition than Earth. But it was a very inexpensive addition and we so we added it.

“And it turns out you can actually hear a lot of things on Mars. You can hear things like the wind and the sound of the planet at different times of the day.

“You can also hear the sound of Mars’ helicopter, Ingenuity, which gives us a constant sound to measure ourselves against. This allowed us to test the propagation of sound in the mountains in the Martian atmosphere, which we could not do before.

Read more: NASA Releases Weird ‘Singing’ From A Black Hole And It’s Straight Out Of A Horror Movie

Music and planetary sciences

Lanza is a former violinist and sings with the local choral ensemble, Coro de Cámara, and has a deep love for music as an art.

“My sister-in-law is a professional violinist, and I think sometimes the arts get the same criticism as planetary science; What’s the point ?

“Why do we need music in our school and education system? Why are we spending money to explore the solar system when people are suffering here?

“Of course, I’m not advocating for anyone to suffer, but I also know that we need more than shoes on our feet, food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. We need things that feed our souls.

“Part of what makes us human is our curiosity, and we explore to understand ourselves. Music and planetary science have a lot in common in that regard because I think those are the things that give meaning to our lives.

Purcell: sound the trumpet

Here is a perfect song for Saturday! ‘Sound the Trumpet’ by Purcell, arranged by Benjamin Britten and performed by Carolyn Sampson, soprano, Iestyn Davies MBE – Countertenor and Joseph Middleton. It’s part of a wonderful series of recordings on BIS Records – get your copy here 👉http://amzn.eu/d/3hgCazm

Posted by Classic FM on Saturday, September 1, 2018

At the end of our interview with Lanza, we asked her what song she would like to hear live on Mars.

The planetary scientist quickly replies, “probably something corny like Purcell. Ring it Trumpet is a classic.

However, she quickly adds, “although due to the higher pitches it probably wouldn’t sound great on Mars.

“Maybe I’d be better off with a piece of deep bass club music on this occasion.”

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