Posted in creation, Uncategorized

What is ‘earthquake music’?

I came across a lecture to be given last week at University of Southern California Library in a series called Visions and Voices. It grabbed my attention because of my curiosity about the music of the spheres, a concept I’ll explain down below. Here is the blurb for the lecture. To my knowledge, it was not recorded or transcribed so I don’t know the specifics of what was said, though I did email the Lecture people to ask after it.

The earth hums along to its own soundtrack. If only we could listen to it. 

When the ground beneath us shifts, as it is prone to do in Los Angeles, it unleashes enormous quantities of energy as seismic waves. Packing a destructive punch, these waves race through the earth like sound waves through air. In fact, seismic waves bear many remarkable similarities to sound waves. But though we feel them as earthquakes, we can’t hear them; their frequencies are simply too low for the human ear to detect. What if we transposed earthquake waves to an audible frequency? This fascinating event will bring these normally inaudible sounds to life through a panel discussion, scientific demonstrations of how seismic waves affect our built environment, experimental sonification of seismic data, and creative musical interpretations. 

Participants include seismologist Lucy Jones, known to many Angelenos as the longtime public face of earthquake science for the U.S. Geological Survey; composer and USGS geophysicist Andrew Michael (Earthquake Quartet #1); USC Dornsife College earthquake geologist James Dolan; USGS physicist Stephanie Ross; and sound artist DJ /rupture. The discussion will be moderated by Josh Kun of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

I like Dr Lucy Jones. I’ve listened to her explanations regarding earthquakes. I’ve read some of her articles, too. I noticed that the Lecture was to include geophysicist Andrew Michael who is part of something called Earthquake Quartet #1, so I looked that up. His info is located at the United States Geological Survey (USGS). It states in part,

Earthquake Quartet #1 is an outgrowth of a lecture that I have been giving since 1997. This lecture, “The Music of Earthquakes,” mixes performance and lecture, music and science, acoustic instruments and computer generated sounds. A musician controls the source of the sound and the path it travels through their instrument in order to make sound waves that we hear as music. An earthquake is the source of waves that travel along a path through the earth until reaching us as shaking. It is almost as if the earth is a musician and people, including seismologists, are the audience who must try to understand what the music means.

The excerpt above has a sample of the music. How interesting!!

That led me to explore more and I learned about sonification, which was also mentioned in the excerpt of the Visions & Voices Lecture at USC. This is a link to an absolutely fascinating 7-minute interview on how, with today’s technology, scientists are turning data into sound (sonification). Take a listen to data that plots median income in Manhattan turned into a song. Meanwhile, here is an excerpt of the article and interview below:

How do you turn a pie chart into sound? That was the problem faced by NASA scientists who found challenges with conveying data to astronauts who were unable to process it because of movement and sight issues in space. But where visuals failed, sound showed its practicality. 

Ears were found to detect patterns in places where even visuals failed, according to Bruce Walker, director of Georgia Tech’s Sonification Lab, who worked on that initial project when the field was just getting started in the early ’90s. Data sonification is now a full fledged academic field, with a growing number of daily uses. Brian Foo, an application developer for the New York Public Library Labs, is pushing it to new boundaries…

The clip does provide audible sounds for data that are usually visually presented on a pie chart. It’s fascinating. What does data sound like? Listen and you will hear a sample. Meanwhile here is one definition of what sonifcation is

Data sonification means representing data as non-speech sound.  The basic principles are similar to visualization, but where visualizations use elements such as lines, shapes, and colours, sonification relies on sound properties such as volume, pitch, and rhythm.


The original premise above was the lecture with earthquake and geophysical specialists who say that seismic waves are similar to musical waves (sound waves) and thus the earth possesses a music all its own. This reminded me of the Music of the Spheres, Musica Universalis, an ancient philosophical notion. I wrote about it in a multi-part essay here. The following is an excerpt.

This is My Father’s World is a hymn written sometime in the 1800s by Maltbie Babcock, a preacher in upstate New York. It was published after his death in 1901, and set to music by Frank L. Sheppard. It references Psalm 104; Psalm 24; Acts 4:24; Acts 4.

If you ever heard the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” there is a lyric in the first stanza that mentions the “music of the spheres”. explains the hymn’s lyric in context-

 The text is a confession of faith and trust, a testimony that all creation around us is the handiwork of our Father, who made the creation (st. 1), charged us to take good care of it (st. 2), and continues to exercise his kingship over it … The phrase “music of the spheres” in stanza 1 refers to the ancient belief that the planets made music or harmony as they revolved in the universe. 

Pythagoras, Plato, Kepler, Bohr, and Pastor Babcock all brushed up against the same order and harmony in creation in math, astronomy, and music, and each of these people throughout the centuries reacted to the divine knowledge of this creation differently, just as Romans 1 said they would. Some saw harmony and order in creation and worshiped it, while others saw harmony and order in creation and worshiped the Creator.

Musica Universalis is the Latin term for the Pythagorean philosophy called Music of the Spheres. Pythagoras initially developed the thought that the planets made music. This notion is not as far off as it sounds- Pythagoras was really on to string theory.

Does the earth make music? Does the universe make its own music? How can we “sonify” the inherent order and harmony of the created universe? Can we tune in to it? As RC Sproul said in his online class Recovering the Beauty of the Arts,

His word of order triumphed over the chaotic abyss present in Genesis 1:2. Any example of creation points to His majestic artistry.

The orderliness of God in His majesty, set to music, or, extracting the inherent music within His harmonious order. Either way, both are interesting notions.

Now wait a minute, did I read that above correctly? The NY Public Library has labs? Now I’m off to explore THAT rabbit trail! Happy earth listening!


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.