Converting Elements into Music: The Innovative Sound-Based Approach to Understanding Chemistry

A recent college graduate has used data sonification to convert the visible light given off by the elements into unique, complex sounds for each one.[0] W. Walker Smith, a researcher at Indiana University, started by converting the natural vibrations of molecules into sounds before turning the spectrographs of the visible light given off when elements are energized into music.[1] Smith’s next goal is to turn this technology into a musical instrument with an exhibit at the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health, and Technology in Bloomington, Indiana, creating an interactive, real-time musical periodic table.[0] This will allow both children and adults to select an element and see a display of its visible light spectrum and hear it at the same time.[2] Smith believes that this sound-based approach has potential value as an alternative teaching method in chemistry classrooms, as it is inclusive to people with visual impairments and different learning styles.[0]

During the ACS Spring 2023 Meeting, Smith will also perform “The Sound of Molecules,” a show that will feature audio clips of a few of the elements, as well as “compositions” of larger molecules. On March 26, Smith showcased his project at the American Chemical Society Spring Meeting in 2023, and on March 28, he will be performing his production titled “The Sound of Molecules”.

Smith discovered pattern similarities between light and sound vibrations during his research.[2] Red has half the frequency of violet, for instance.[2] In the realm of music, an octave is achieved with a doubling of frequency.[2] By applying this reasoning, we can refer to visible light as an “octave of light.”[2] The frequency of an octave of light is significantly greater than the audible range of the human ear.[2] In order to solve this issue, Smith reduced the frequencies of the sine waves and adjusted the audio output to a range that could be perceived by the human ear, allowing for variations in pitch to be discerned.[2]

Some elements had hundreds or thousands of frequencies, which allowed the notes to create harmonies and beating patterns when mixed together.[2] According to Smith, while hydrogen and helium emit sounds that resemble musical chords, the other elements produce a more intricate range of sounds.[2] Calcium creates a chiming sound, resembling the harmony of bells, as a result of the interaction between its frequencies.[3] As Smith listened to the sounds emanating from other sources, they evoked a creepy ambiance akin to the eerie melody often heard in low-quality horror flicks.[3] The element zinc amazed him, its multitude of colors producing a sound akin to “a heavenly choir singing a vibrant major chord with vibrato.”[3]

The off-key tones, known musically as microtones, come from frequencies that are found between the keys of a traditional piano.[2] While some of the notes may sound out of tune, Smith has kept true to that in this translation of the elements into music.[0] “The decisions as to what’s vital to preserve when doing data sonification are both challenging and rewarding. And Smith did a great job making such decisions from a musical standpoint,” says Wang.[1]

Transforming light into sound frequencies may present an alternative method for individuals to discern disparities among elements. When energized, elements emit visible light.[2] Each element has its own unique set of wavelengths of color contained within light.[2] Differentiating between various elements' wavelengths can be difficult to discern on paper, particularly for transition metals that encompass thousands of distinct colors.[2] Smith believes that converting the light into sound frequencies could be another way for people to detect the differences between elements.

In conclusion, Smith’s project creates a new way to explore and understand the elements through sound. The interactive musical periodic table has the potential to be an inclusive and engaging teaching tool for chemistry classrooms.[4] The project also highlights the similarities between light and sound vibrations and offers a new way to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the elements.[2]

0. “Creating an Interactive, Musical Periodic Table” Laboratory Equipment, 27 Mar. 2023,

1. “What do the elements sound like? (video)” Newswise, 21 Mar. 2023,

2. “What does hydrogen sound like? Chemists create the first musical periodic table” Study Finds, 27 Mar. 2023,

3. “What do the elements sound like?”, 26 Mar. 2023,

4. “What Do the Elements Sound Like? Video” Technology Networks, 27 Mar. 2023,

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