How a biologist and a composer are making music from the northern lights

While you may be familiar with the natural phenomenon known as the northern lights (aurora borealis), did you know there’s an audio element to this brilliant light show?

When humans see those sweeping green and violet lights over the Arctic sky, what we’re actually seeing are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. These collisions emit electromagnetic waves, and they can be translated into sounds that humans can hear via a small machine.

Recently, a small documentary called Songs of the Sky was produced that followed biologist Karin Lehmkuhl Bodony as she ventures out into the Alaskan wilderness on her dog sleigh to record the sounds. Bodony, who lives in the remote Alaskan village of Galena, discovered 16 years ago that it is possible to record the sound of the lights using a very low frequency (VLF) receiver.

For the VLF to successfully capture the sounds of the aurora borealis, however, a northern lights listener must travel at least four miles away from human-made sounds and other electrical sources such as powerlines because they can cause interference on the VLF receivers.

So, what do the northern lights sound like? Some say they sound like crackles or muffled bangs, while Bodony herself says they can sound like beautiful ‘whoosh-whoosh’ noises.

For the Songs of the Sky documentary, the UK’s Radio 3 commissioned the composer Matthew Burtner to turn these celestial sounds into a piece of music. Lasting six minutes in total, Burtner hoped with his song to express the dialectic between humans and the natural world.

“That’s what I’m always looking for in music – there’s something of the real natural system in there that’s untouched by a person,” said Burtner.

Interestingly enough, the noises of the aurora borealis can also be heard during the day. “We tend to think of them happening at night because that’s when we see them but the fact that you didn’t have to be out at night was amazing,” said Burtner. “We could pull out the VLF recorder at any time and just listen to them through the cloud cover.”

We would love to show you Burtner’s piece and Songs of the Sky documentary, but it has yet to be released. In the meantime, you can follow this link to hear some of the raw noises of the northern lights.

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