The Friday Fillip: Music of the Spheres . . .

. . . and octahedrons, and cuneiforms, and cross-stitches.

Music is weird. It has no known evolutionary advantage that might account for its existence, at least none that is agreed upon. As for social purpose, were it to disappear from the world, it’s not at all certain that anything would change. And although definition is always difficult and imperfect, it’s particularly hard to say in words what, if anything, makes music different from just noise.

Yet we keep at it, keep making music, hearing it in noise, and, some would argue, have done so even before we could talk about it and because we couldn’t talk about it.

Because music is social, each of the instances that follow can be thought of as a door into a rich realm worthy of a magnitude of fillips and more all on its own. You may wish to pursue the various links on the various pages into those realms — when you have a year or two spare, perhaps. But this is a fillip and as such is about glimpses, or “snatches” of a tune. And that also happens in a way to be the underlying theme behind these instances: music is used here to bridge vast distances, distances in time and scale and space, because of its ability to offer a suggestive pattern and, so, in a kind of synesthesia where yellow smells like tea, for example, to intimate something that might otherwise be incommunicable.

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Let’s begin at the beginning — or as close to it as we can get from this remove — which in this case is Sumeria and 3,400-year-old clay tablets that contain, it’s believed, cuneiform musical notation, making this the oldest known “recorded” music. (And you thought it was one of Paul McCartney’s songs. Shame on you.) Here, below, is how archeologist Anne Draffkorn Kilmer and others have rendered the hymn, though you’ll hear it in a midi version, which is hardly how it would originally have been played.✱✱


Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Now from very old to unimaginably small. Viruses known as phages (eaters) are too tiny to see without the aid of an electron microscope, yet these elaborate and multi-various octagonal structures that prey on giant bacteria are more numerous than any other living organisms, there being some 1031 — ten million trillion trillion — of them. As the New Yorker article on phages puts it, there are more of them than there are of all other living organisms combined. (Interestingly, because we’re dealing in sorts of extremes today, it’s worth noting of phages that they’re at the boundary between living and non-living matter, and, too, at the edges of our scientific knowledge.)

But phages and music? There’s a push on by the small group of scientists who see the importance of phages to increase awareness of these mini beast-machines (and thereby presumably funding for research). As part of that push, they’ve published a free book on phages and have invited musicians to work with the nucleotides of phages to produce music evocative of these virons. According to the site’s explanation about the music:

It dawned on us at one point, that the experience of listening to music provides us, from an early age, with an expert’s finely-tuned ability to recognize and track patterns and evolving permutations . . . The enormous challenge in translating DNA to music was to rigorously preserve the information of the genome, while allowing the composers the intuitive wiggle room necessary to create music which connects with us emotionally, thus harnessing our ability to trace patterns in music and discovering, in a very physical way, patterns hidden deep within the string of nucleotides.

Here’s a composition by Ryan Morgan, just one of the more “successful” of the 14 pieces, all available for download.

If that’s sounds “spacy,” try some real music of the spheres, as our extreme now becomes distance. Here’s a short recording by NASA of radio waves coming off Saturn during Cassini’s flypast.

This is taken from a huge collection of sound files made freely available by NASA, most of which involve near Earth communication between astronauts and the control centres (including the famous lines like “The Eagle has landed.”, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”, and “That’s one small step for (a) man…“) A favourite of mine is a recording of the monotonous, metronomic music of little Sputnik.

Finally, we’re going to sew things up this Friday with a cross-stitch. And our extreme here is, well, less extreme than the others, perhaps. It takes us back in time just a little, to when our forebears used to do needlework, a time of skills now lost, for the most part; and it takes to Hungary, extreme only in the sense that its native tongue, Magyar, is a rare instance of a non Indo-European language in Europe. But the distance music is asked to bridge is again a seemingly impossible one; put as a question, it is “What does embroidery sound like.”

The answer comes from a collaboration between textile student Zsanett Szirmay and musician Bálint Tárkány-Kovács, who abstracted the traditional folk patterns on fabrics, converted them to holes in paper, and then fed them through a constructed music box to make “soundweavings.” There are eleven such compositions on the site linked above. Here’s #6, playing the pattern you see below:


✱ See, for example, “Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited” on Language Log, or a review of “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body” in Evolutionary Psychology.

✱✱ For a serious, extended discussion of how this feat was accomplished, go to the version on YouTube and click on the “Show More” link under the video.


  1. Thanks for this article. I think music, like law, is an inevitable outcome of physical reality and the human organism.

    Music cannot disappear from the world without taking with it some crucial components of acoustics, of cognition, or of both. It is easy for us—humans generally and lawyers especially—to see a social purpose in law, and none in music.

    Switch the thought experiment around: what would happen if law suddenly disappeared from the world? Either human cognition would be changed beyond recognition, or law would very quickly re-emerge.