Listen to the sound of science

9th March 2012 at 00:00
Pupils in Edinburgh have been set an unusual task: use chemistry to create music. Julia Horton tunes in

Can you create music from chemistry? To pupils at Balerno High in Edinburgh it seems at first like an impossible task. As young scientists, however, they are used to experimenting, and before long they are mixing their knowledge of chemical elements and musical notes to produce something complex, new and invisible - the sound of science.

They are working with contemporary city composer Julian Wagstaff to help him write a new work for a concert entitled A Chemistry of Music. It has been commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry to celebrate scientific achievements in the capital, both past, present and - in the case of these teenagers - future.

Judging by the patterns the pupils are drawing on the manuscript paper the years ahead look promising, for there is definitely chemistry in their compositions. In some cases, quite literally, as pupils with little musical knowledge choose to use the little black dots representing notes on the page to spell out the entire word from "c" to "y" across the lines.

"That's great!" Dr Wagstaff enthuses before adding, to their surprise, "You could definitely play that!"

In contrast, the "ff" dynamics and swift, short runs of staccato semiquavers neatly scored by Hannah Fisher on her manuscript reveal a clear aptitude for music. Her understanding of both subjects makes the task a bit easier, although she is also initially baffled by the idea of combining the two.

Hannah, 15, says: "I thought they were quite odd subjects to mix up but when Dr Wagstaff explained the idea of using patterns of notes to show what I think chemistry is, it made sense.

"Chemistry always seems quite erratic to me! I was trying to represent the contrast between the `hyper-ness' of the elements (when they are mixed together) and the calmness when it (an experiment) works.

"I can see now that music and chemistry can go quite well together. I think the whole class enjoyed it, even the ones who are not musical too."

Classmate Daniel Webster, 15, is one of the pupils in this S4 chemistry group who does not study music as well. He says: "I really wasn't sure what to do but then I started to draw notes in patterns to form the letters for chemical symbols, like an M (for metal).

"I was surprised that you could combine music and chemistry. I think it's a really good idea. I'd like to hear what it might sound like."

Pupils later had the chance to do just that, because Dr Wagstaff incorporated several of their compositions in the third and final movement of his work, representing the future of chemistry in Edinburgh.

David Lane, a chemistry teacher at Balerno and teacher representative on the Royal Society of Chemistry's Edinburgh area committee, which commissioned the work, praises the cross-curricular project. He says: "It's quite an unusual combination and obviously with Curriculum for Excellence we are looking for things like this.

"The pupils were very enthusiastic. I think it's given them a different outlook on their science, seeing how different subjects can be linked together.

"It was also good for them to hear from Dr Wagstaff about how his career has developed. He has taken a number of changes (to get where he is now), and as modern children they are going to have to change careers too."

Dr Wagstaff has spent the past year as composer in residence at the King's Buildings, where the University of Edinburgh's chemistry department is based. Now a classical composer, he himself studied chemistry up to sixth year.

To write the movements on the past and present he spoke to university researchers and working chemists. He says: "I discovered that Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer, was a chemist. That was his day job. He studied in Heidelberg in Germany in the 1800s with the very important Edinburgh chemist Alexander Crum Brown, who was the first person to produce 3D models of molecules, using knitting needles and wool. The first movement of my piece (on the past) is very much influenced by Crum Brown's work.

"Science and music are so different. Science is trying to describe the world objectively, while music is about feelings and emotion. But both science and music involve abstract thought and you can create musical structures (using notes) to represent scientific structures (of atoms and elements)."

A Chemistry of Music was performed at Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile by the renowned Hebrides Ensemble in December as part of a series of events around the world, marking the International Year of Chemistry. It is hoped that there will be future performances of the piece.

Meanwhile, maths and computing teachers take note - further educational work is planned to coincide with a new tour of Dr Wagstaff's hit opera inspired by the English war-time codebreaking genius, Alan Turing.

The Turing Test Opera, named after Turing's definition of artificial intelligence, will return this year to mark the centenary of Turing's birth.


Julian Wagstaff is not the first composer to make music from chemistry. Perhaps the most famous, controversial and abstract is the 20th-century avant-garde composer John Cage's 4'33".

Devoid of any notes, the piece is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Add up the total number of seconds and you get 273, which (with a minus sign) equates to absolute zero in Celsius - theoretically the coldest temperature possible.

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