rob Wix

Guest post: Music in Science Communication

Rob Wix has composed music for a diverse range of projects, starting with a touring musical theatre production when he was 16, around twenty planetarium shows, Edinburgh Festival plays and most recently for ITV2 and Channel 4. In this blog he discusses the positive affect of music in science communication

Rob Wix

My parents tell me I was playing the piano at the age of 3.

I wandered home with a violin when I was 7.

My 12th birthday present was a synthesiser…come to think of it so was my 18th, 25th and 32nd.

Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, and one of the best things about my job in science communication is using music to enhance what I do. One of the areas I’ve used music a great deal is in the planetarium. In a planetarium the audience is taken into a new world where what they see and hear is finely tuned to provide a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere as the scale and wonders of the Universe unfold. A good planetarium presentation helps to contextualise information; it lets an audience know how to react when information is presented…and boy does it have some information to be presented.

However, the topic of Space can sometimes be overwhelming:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space…” (Adams D, 1979)

The numbers concerning the distances and sizes are almost beyond comprehension; consider our Sun at 93,000,000 miles from Earth. That’s ninety three MILLION miles.  A distance of one million miles cannot even be measured on Earth’s surface, so how do you effectively convey the vastness of space to a lay audience? How can the threat of Near Earth Objects or the advanced stellar discoveries of ancient human civilisations be adequately described and communicated in 25 minutes, appreciated and understood by an audience of school pupils, or members of the public who have called in for some science communication between grocery shopping and trying on shoes?

Thankfully, the science communication toolbox contains a medium that can reach deep inside humans and connect with them in a way that is truly profound – music.

Play someone a piece of music and they can describe pretty accurately what it is they should be feeling. People also instinctively know when the music is “wrong”. Picture the tear-jerking finale to ET The Extra Terrestrial with a Bavarian ‘Oom-Paa’ Band pumping away, or a funeral with some frantic Belgian techno, and you’ll know what I mean.

In the same way that a film score can influence how you feel during scenes in a film, a good planetarium score can aid effective communication within the presentation.

Want to convey a sense of awe and wonder? Try high, simple chords using breathy voices such as choirs or slow, warm strings. How about the violent storms raging within Jupiter’s great Red Spot? Try some strong, deep brass, insistent pulsating strings and swelling basslines. The instruments used must also be carefully selected so that the frequencies they produce do not conflict with any narration.

Music that is rousing and swelling and using full orchestral sounds can imply a concept of enormity and grandeur, whilst lighter music can draw attention to how delicate and finely balanced the Universe can appear. Melodies and leitmotifs can accompany key moments in the narration or visuals, or be associated with stars, planets or galaxies. A change of instrument and volume can bring light and shade to the presentation and key facts can be highlighted by a subtle change of instruments or melody.

Have a listen to the short clip that accompanies this blog, it’s of one of the very first planetarium presentations that I scored, back in the days when everything had to be played in by hand and decent microphones were only a dream. The dulcet, lilting tones (to which I could listen to for hours) are those of Elin Roberts, who wrote and narrated Lights In The Sky. I think it was around 1997.

Lights in the Sky Extract

Music doesn’t have to stop at the planetarium – the next time you have to show a video or some slides in a presentation, or if you need to record some science communication for a podcast, add some music. Tell the audience how they should feel when they connect with your presentation, try out a few different pieces, try to create a mood for your endeavours…

…just maybe not that frantic Belgian techno, eh?