Elemental music from a spectroscope.

Ars Technica digs the research of Indiana University grad student W. Walker Smith, who has combined his interests in music and chemistry to create a “data sonification project” – in other words, a way to convert a spectroscope reading quantities of different elements into a musical instrument playing different notes and timbres:

All the elements release distinct wavelengths of light, depending on their electron energy levels, when stimulated by electricity or heat, and those chemical “fingerprints” make up the visible spectra at the heart of chemical spectroscopy. Smith translated those different frequencies of light into different pitches or musical notes using an instrument called the Light Soundinator 3000, scaling down those frequencies to be within the range of human hearing. He professed amazement at the sheer variety of sounds.

“Red light has the lowest frequency in the visible range, so it sounds like a lower musical pitch than violet,” said Smith, demonstrating on a toy color-coded xylophone. “If we move from red all the way up to violet, the frequency of the light keeps getting higher, and so does the frequency of the sound. Violet is almost double the frequency of red light, so it actually sounds close to a musical octave.” And while simpler spectra like hydrogen and helium, which only have a few lines in their spectra, sound like “vaguely musical” chords, elements with more complex spectra consisting of thousands of lines are dense and noisy, often sounding like “a cheesy horror movie effect,” according to Smith.

His favorites: helium and zinc. “If you listen to the frequencies [of helium] one by one instead of all at once, you get an interesting scale pattern that I have used to make a couple of compositions, including a ‘helium dance party,'” said Smith. As for zinc, “The first row of transition metals have very complex, dense grating sounds. But zinc, for whatever reason, despite having a large number of frequencies, sounds like an angelic vocalist singing with vibrato.”

There’s full-color video with audio at the link.