Patterns: the music of the elements

Below are details for a competition planned to run through summer 2020, but this is postponed for now due to Covid-19.

The big idea

‘Patterns: the Music of the Spheres’’  is the name of a whole programme of events, including this competition, with an award to be presented for the three best entries for devising a way to express all the elements of the Periodic Table – a landmark in science – in the form of music.

The table, drawn up by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, established the link between chemistry and physics; and in so doing, it laid the foundations of the 20th Century’s main scientific agenda – the unification of all the material sciences.

We believe that the key scientific agenda for the 21st Century is to bring science closer to the lives and imaginations of ordinary people, who do not think of science as being ‘for them’.

Here in Cornwall, where a particularly strong musical tradition is part of our distinctive culture, we are aware that 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mendeleev’s first Periodic Table; and so we wish to mark this in our own way, with a program of events leading up to a weekend festival celebrating the science(s) of sound: Resonance


Playing around with conventions of representation

Many will be already familiar with the Periodic Table, seeing it shown as a pattern conveyed in 2 dimensions (with the individual elements drawn either as diagrams or formulae, like code). The elements themselves are given written names – H for hydrogen, H2O for the combination that is water.

But this is simply a convention – chemical elements are not truly 2D –  and it is one that anchors the beauty of the concept in a scientific representation the world that not everyone can readily relate to.

Yet such diagrams and codes are essentially patterns; and music, too, is a matter of repeated and combined patterns. But music has a way to engage people with imagination, in a way that more staid and studious presentations cannot do.

The core mission of the CSC is public engagement with science, and especially to reach out to engage communities that would not normally see themselves as involved in science; and here we see an opportunity to catch the imagination of many who would see science – and perhaps especially chemistry – as simply not of any interest.  This one reason for our hosting this idea as a competition, wanting to upturn the stereotypically dry image of the sciences and instead aiming for showbiz flair and dynamism.

The competition (and prizes) will be open to all who live or work in Cornwall, to invent a way to express the elements of the PT, not in 2D as figures on a page, as Mendeleev himself did, but as sounds.   This then becomes, in effect, a new form of musical notation, from which new music can be created, and then played.

This ‘music of the spheres’ might be expressed here as actual sounds, as notation for a musical score, or in the form of a MIDI interface that allows the ‘music’ to be played through any electronic device with a sound card*.

It should then be possible to put together multiple elements as molecules, crystals, or far longer chains (for organic chemistry) and then to compose musical soundscapes .So, water + silicon = beach; water + granite = cliff; wood or grass are complex molecules, full of harmonies; waves are then expressible as volume changes, and structures as rhythm, in the length and repetition of notes, and in harmonies etc, etc…..

The underlying intention, in making this a competition, is to engage the imagination and create some excitement.  For this reason, too, although we have the basic costs covered, we intend to crowdfund for contributions, which allows a community of micro-funders to feel some sense of ownership (literally) and participation.

Hence too the time frames. We launch the Crowdfunder appeal in the run up to Xmas, so that a sponsorship can make a very distinctive Xmas gift. We then wish to give plenty of time for publicity and for development of the instrument and the chosen piece of music, bearing in mind both school and university term and holiday times.



The number of crowdfunding opportunities is set to reflect the number of elements in the table that have been identified, so that any funder can be sure that they will get an element’s sound named for them, or their nominated person. They will then own the intellectual property to that sound’s name – although they terms are that these must be then made available for free, via a creative commons licence.

There are two possible levels of funding at this stage: £10 and £20.

£10 entitles the funder to be in the draw to determine who gets which of the basic elements in the table, irrespective of commercial value, rarity, or half-life.

£20 entitles the funder to be in the draw to get one of the more significant elements: gold, silver and bronze; but then also – since this is Cornwall – tin, and copper; with oxygen and carbon, the stuff of life, at the top prizes.

Note that funding at either of these levels means that the funder (or their assigned person

for a gift) will know that they do have an element, but not which one. This additional frisson of suspense will, we hope, add to the enjoyment. All will be revealed later, at the Resonance festival, with the performance.


As with any competition there can be no guarantee, at this early stage, of the quality of the entries that we will receive. But Cornwall – which has a very strong musical tradition, a sense of place and belonging (the Cornish are recognised as a minority by the EU) – now in addition benefits from a lively contemporary music presence via an offshoot of the University of Exeter, and we also have the Falmouth University digital technologies centre.

This programme culminates in a world premiere performance of an entirely new musical composition – and beyond that, a whole new genre.