What actually happens when you play a musical instrument in space?

7 December 2017, 11:30

If you’re staying on the International Space Station for a few months at a time, you probably have some free time to kill – so it’s natural you might try and get a few hours of practice in. But what actually happens when you try to create music in microgravity?

First things first, it is possible.

Sound waves need to travel through air to produce a sound. As there is air on a spacecraft, musical instruments should still work.

However, it might not work if you try to play outside of a shuttle or space station. On a violin or guitar, the strings would vibrate without producing a sound. Similarly, brass instruments normally make a sound because of air vibrating inside the body of the instrument, so with no air, this wouldn’t work.

Is it safe? 

And no, we’re not talking about the instrument floating off and hitting someone over the head (although thinking about it, that could totally happen). 

via GIPHY

Wooden instruments like violins, for example, are flammable – and you should probably ask a spacecraft expert before taking one on board. You should also think about taking your instrument in a metal case, as plastic cases emit more radiation.

What’s different?

When you play a musical instrument on a space station, it sounds pretty much the same because soundwaves work in the same way in microgravity as they do on Earth (see the video above to watch a few instruments in action).

However, NASA explains you do have to handle the instrument differently.

In an interview with astronauts Carl Walz and Ellen Ochoa, flautist Ochoa said, “When I played the flute in space, I had my feet in foot loops.”

Although the force of air emitted from a flute is very small, in microgravity it would be enough to move Ochoa around the shuttle. She told NASA, “even with [my] feet hooked into the loops, [I] could feel that force pushing [me] back and forth just a little bit as [I] played”.

International Space Station artwork

Guitarist Walz told NASA: “you don’t need a guitar strap up there, but what was funny was, I’d be playing and then all of a sudden the pick would go out of my hands. Instead of falling, it would float away, and I’d have to catch it before it got lost.”

Walz also explained that when he hit a note on his keyboard in microgravity, he ended up pushing the keyboard away. “You have to sort of get used to that,” he said.

And what doesn’t change?

“The strangest thing about playing music in space,” Carl Walz told NASA, “is that it’s not strange.

“In most homes, there’s a musical instrument or two. And I think it’s fitting that in a home in space you have musical instruments as well. It’s natural.”

“Music makes it seem less like a space ship, and more like a home.”

That NASA has allowed its astronauts to make music on board their shuttles underlines the significance of music in their environment – whether they’re listening to it or making it. 

It’s a nice thought that while they’re orbiting above us, miles away from home, astronauts can find solace in practising their instrument...

via GIPHY