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Star sounds

On sparkling clear nights, I have thought that if stars played music it would sound like a music box. But could a link between music boxes and stars be more than a flight of fancy, inappropriate in this scientific age?

I decided to find out, and the initial step was to learn a little more about the mechanism of the music box itself. Music boxes were first added to clocks and jewelry in the eighteenth century. Larger music boxes were built for the single purpose of musical enjoyment. Early models had rotating cylinders with steel pins that plucked reeds, which were tuned to the notes of the scale. A more advanced type replaced the cylinder with a disk that, in old pictures, looks remarkably like a star map.

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As for musical content, I found that the Pythagoreans discovered that musical intervals depend on ratios of different lengths of string at the same tension - 2:1 equaling an octave, 3:2 a fifth, and so on. They believed that similar mathematical relationships underlie the structure and motion of stars and planets.

Aristotle wrote that the Pythagoreans ''took the whole heaven to be harmony. . . . They organized the whole arrangement of the heavens to exhibit its harmony.'' Thus the ''music of the spheres'' was not just a figure of speech for the ancient Greeks, but a reference to principles that applied both to harmonics and astronomy.

Photographs show the Milky Way galaxy, of which our solar system is one tiny part, as a huge disk, spiraling billions of miles into the universe. As we watch the orderly procession of constellations across the night sky, music does not seem out of keeping with the luminous spectacle. It is worth writing poetry about: