What would music sound like on Mars? We spoke to a planetary scientist to find out...

20 May 2022, 17:30 | Updated: 5 June 2022, 20:04

What does music sound like when played in Mars’ atmosphere?
What does music sound like when played in Mars’ atmosphere? Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Dr Nina Lanza tells Classic FM why symphony orchestras would sound “off” on Mars.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Sounds we hear on Earth are not the same as what we would hear on Mars.

NASA's Perseverance rover has been surveying the surface of Mars since February 2021, and has been recording sounds since the day after its arrival on the red planet.

The sounds which returned revealed that Mars is quiet. So quiet in fact, that the scientists wondered if the microphone had been damaged and was no longer working.

Sound on Mars is altered due to three main differences; atmosphere, temperature, and density. We spoke to Dr Nina Lanza from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, United States, to find out more about how music would be affected on the red planet...

Read more: 7 times classical music was inspired by space

What music sounds like on Mars

While the Earth’s atmosphere is made up largely of nitrogen, with around 21 percent oxygen and an even smaller amount of other gases, such as carbon dioxide, whereas Mars’ atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide. Mars also has a lower temperature than Earth, and a lower density.

Dr Lanza explains: “First of all, things are going to sound a lot quieter on Mars overall, because there are just fewer molecules there [due to the density], so these need to work harder to make a wave that travels.”

Last month, a study revealed that the speed of sound is slower on Mars than on Earth, however, unlike on Earth, Mars has two speeds of sound. On Earth the speed of sound is approximately 767 mph (343 meters per second), whereas on Mars, lower pitches travel at about 537 mph (240 meters per second), while higher-pitched sounds move at 559 mph (250 meters per second).

“Sounds at different frequencies at different pitches are also going to be attenuated differently than they are on earth,” Dr Lanza continues. “In general, higher pitches are quieter and lower pitches are louder than on Earth, which is especially true on Mars because of the carbon dioxide atmosphere.

“If you are listening to music that is very high pitched, it will sound [very] tinny and quiet... whereas the lower pitches are going to sound a little more robust.”

Read more: Listen to the eerie, real-life sounds of every planet in our solar system

NASA Perseverance Rover Lands On Mars
NASA Perseverance Rover Lands On Mars. Picture: Photo illustration by NASA via Getty Images

Thinking about an orchestra, where higher-pitched instruments usually play the tune, such as the violins, while lower-pitched instruments fill out the accompaniment, Lanza says listening to this kind of ensemble would sound “off” on Mars.

“I think gravity would also make a really big difference,” Lanza adds, “for musicians that usually play bigger instruments.

“Musicians would find their instruments much easier to lift to because of their beefy Earth strength, so this difference could throw them off when trying to play”.

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

Dr Nina Lanza, and the Mars community

Growing up in Boston, a city known for its multitude of world-leading higher education institutions such as Harvard and MIT, Lanza became interested in space at an early age, as she had the opportunity to attend free events at universities on the topic as a child.

When Lanza was seven, her parents took her to observe the passing of Halley’s comet in 1986. “I’ll never forget what it was like to look through a telescope and to think, my gosh, there’s like a thing out there!”, the scientist recalls.

Fast forward to an undergraduate degree in astronomy, it was only at the end of her bachelors study that Lanza realised that geology was her best pathway to exploring more about space.

“Geology is where I feel like I belong,” Lanza admits. “I just really want to understand what’s out there, and studying rocks helps us do that.”

Comet 1P/Halley (Halley's Comet) as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW)
Comet 1P/Halley (Halley's Comet) as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW). Picture: Alamy

Lanza works on two Mars projects; the planetary scientist is the Principal Investigator of the ChemCam instrument onboard the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, and a science team member for the SuperCam instrument onboard the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

Both instruments are used to rapidly identify the kind of rocks being studied, and are straight out of your wildest space nerd dreams. The cameras shoot lasers at rocks, and vaporise a small part of the matter, in order to collect data on he chemical makeup of Martian rocks and ‘soil’. Regrettably Lanza informs us, the sound emitted from the lasers during this process is more of a sharp snapping sound, than the somewhat expected Sci-Fi-esque “pew pew”.

This sharp snapping sound is useful to Lanza, whose main area of research is “trying to understand how we can use that laser zapping sound to understand whether or not there is a very thin coating on that rock, because you can hear the changing the sound as you penetrate from one composition to another.”

As the scientists can’t access the rocks on Mars themselves, using this acoustic dataset helps squeeze as much information out of the rocks as possible.

Listen to the sound of NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter in Flight

Sound is not only an important part of Lanza’s data collection, but other scientists’ research on the red planet. On the SuperCam, a microphone is attached to the back of its mast, which not only picks up the sound of the lasers vaporising rocks, but also general sounds made on Mars.

“We weren’t really sure if this microphone was going to work,” Lanza explains, “because the Martian atmosphere is a lot less dense and has a different composition than that of Earth’s. But it was a very inexpensive addition and so we added it.

“And it turns out you can actually hear a lot of things on Mars. You can hear things like the wind, and how the planet sounds at different times of the day.

“You can also hear the sound of Mars’ helicopter, Ingenuity, which gives us a constant sound to measure against. This allowed us to test the propagation of sound in the mountains in the Martian atmosphere, something we weren’t previously able to do.”

Read more: NASA releases eerie ‘singing’ from a black hole and it’s straight out of a horror movie

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Captures Puff, Whir, Zap Sounds from Mars

Music and the planetary sciences

Lanza is a former violinist, and sings with local choral ensemble, Coro de Cámara, and has a deep love for music as an art.

“My sister in law is a professional violinist, and I think sometimes the arts get the same criticism as planetary science; what use is it?

“Why do we need music in our school and education system? Why do we spend money on exploring the solar system when people are suffering here?

“Of course, I don’t advocate for anyone to be left suffering ever, but I also know that we need more than shoes on our feet, food in our bellies, and a roof over our heads. We need things that feed our souls.

“Part of what makes us human is our curiosity, and we explore to understand ourselves. Music and planetary science have a lot in common in this regard as I think these are the things that give our lives meaning.”

Purcell: Sound the Trumpet

Here's a perfect Saturday tune! Purcell's 'Sound the Trumpet', arranged by Benjamin Britten and performed by Carolyn Sampson, soprano, Iestyn Davies MBE - Countertenor and Joseph Middleton. It's part of a wonderful series of recordings on BIS Records - get your copy here 👉http://amzn.eu/d/3hgCazm

Posted by Classic FM on Saturday, September 1, 2018

Ending our interview with Lanza, we asked what piece she’d want to hear played live on Mars.

The planetary scientist quickly responds, “probably something nerdy like Purcell. Sound the Trumpet is a classic.”

However, she swiftly adds, “though because of the higher pitches, it probably wouldn’t sound very good on Mars.

“Maybe I’d be better off with a piece of deep bass club music on this occasion.”