Solar System Sonification

Planetariums offer breathtaking immersive shows that engage and educate their audiences. Abounding with visual media such as visualizations, images, and video, the auditory content is usually limited to narration. We wondered if we could flip the script. Could we make a planetarium show driven by sonic information—information displayed through sonification and auditory display?

Each planet is represented as a pitch proportional to its mass.

When I joined the GT Sonification Lab, one the lab members was researching accessible science experiences for the blind. She had formed a relationship with a local science center, but needed help making sounds. When I learned that the planetarium had a multi-channel speaker system, I got excited. Over the next two semesters, I led a team of graduate students through an iterative sound design process targeting the NASA Planetary Factsheet.

Planet PropertyAuditory Parameter
Length of DayBeat
Length of YearRotation around Audience
Distance from the SunDuration of Spaceship Trip
Temperature RangeMelody
GravityBouncing Ball
Number of RingsGranular Synthesis
The beat of each planet is its length of day. Mercury and Venus are long. Earth and Mars are about equal.
Days on Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus are much shorter.

Our show debuted at the Planetarium of the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta. We used their multi-channel speaker system to rotate the planets around the audience, representing their orbital period.

Each planet moves at a different speed, representing its length of year.

The show was well-attended and we collected data on several factors of the audience’s listening experience. We also got a lot of attention. AT&T commissioned us to create a realtime sonification of the 2017 solar eclipse. The next year, I joined a collaboration with the PhET Project and designed many more sonifications for accessible science.