Not with Numbers But with Notes: Math + Music On Stage


(Jen LeBlanc and Elena Wright in Silent Sky at TheatreWorks 2014.)

The very real mathematical relationship discovered by our main character, Henrietta Leavitt, in the play Silent Sky is explained not with numbers but with notes. Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, is a pianist and just when Henrietta can’t stare at the tables of measurements describing her Cepheid variable stars any longer, she listens… then looks up… then sees/hears what she’s been searching for: a pattern.

That moment is what made me write this play, because it could only work in a play. It’s theatrical, it’s musical, it’s not a moment of dialog but a moment of overwhelm, everything changes in this moment.

Earlier on Henrietta’s mentor Annie tells her to not give up on her instinct but to “think about how you’re thinking.” Henrietta needed to take a break from thinking like an astronomer, and start thinking like a musician. When she does she sees the inherent pattern in her stars. She sees that what would become her famous (and still used) Period-Luminosity Relation can be thought of as a tonal pattern. Cepheid stars are pulsating stars. But if you shift your sense of  pulsating as  bright-dim and reframe it as high-low notes, there is music in it. 

Look at this short silent video of Cepheid star, RS Puppis (more on this star here) in the Milky Way and everything time it brightens think of a high note piano key being pressed…

What Henrietta saw was that the longer the Cepheid star takes to blink (or complete it’s cycle from bright to dim to bright), is exactly  in proportion to how large the star actually is. A massive cepheid would take 2 months to blink, a baby cepheid would take 2 days. Simple, beautiful, constant. 

If you think of the billions of Cepheid stars across the universe all blinking/singing at different intervals, what a dynamic, oceanic symphony of sound it would be.

Asking the amazing composer Jenny Giering to craft this moment with our intrepid lighting design team led by Paul Toben was, I admit, a tall order. But they did it. 

Listen to that moment here

Here’s the music Jenny created to accompany Henrietta’s eureka moment, which was further accompanied by blinking stars all around the set. The notes align with the blinks that aligns with Henrietta’s “Oh my god, I finally get it!” revelation. Pretty damn great as an act break. 


 Also this is perfectly appropriate:

Scientist Creates Music From Voyager Space Probe Data

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