What Do Molecules Sound Like?

Wearing a lab coat and unruly white wig—think Einstein or a dandelion gone to seed—Walker Smith takes the stage as Maestro Molecules. His instrument: a laptop. His music: the chemical building blocks of our world.

“It may seem like an absurd question,” Smith admits, “but I have always wondered if there was a way to convert the activities of molecules—their rotational, vibrational, and translational motion—into sounds.”

Turns out, it is possible. A molecule’s activity can be plotted on a time vs. amplitude graph, and so can sound waves.

Smith is a 2022 IU graduate and Wells Scholar with degrees in chemistry and music composition. During his senior year, he performed “The Sound of Molecules” at a concert for the Jacobs School of Music’s Center for Electronic and Computer Music.

According to a May 2022 article in Smithsonian Magazine, scientists started experimenting with turning data into sound in the early 1980s.

“In the past 40 years, researchers have gone from exploring this trick as a fun way to spot patterns in their studies to using it as a guide to discovery,” journalist Sofia Quaglia wrote.

Smith sees the interplay between science and music as a way to engage and educate. His proposal to bring Maestro Molecules to schools, museums, and other venues won Jacobs’ Project Jumpstart Innovation Competition in 2022.

So, what do molecules sound like? It depends on the molecules and what is happening to them, like whether they’re being heated or cooled. Some molecules sound like the crackle of a vinyl record or the groove of a synth keyboard. Others sound like a gong, a cat purring, or hundreds of bowling balls dropped into a vat of something goopy —bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop.

“As you listen to the sounds of the bonds that hold our world together—that hold you together and that hold your loved ones together,” Smith said as he concluded his molecular masterpiece, “keep in mind that whenever a strong bond is broken, it is merely making room for an even stronger bond to form in its place.”

Interested in supporting this kind of work? See ways to support the Jacobs School of Music.

This article was originally published in the 2022 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
Andrea Alumbaugh
A native Hoosier, Andrea Alumbaugh is a graduate of IU (BAJ’08) and a senior writer at the IU Foundation.