Ripples in Spacetime Composing at Home (Young Instrumentalists) >

In this activity you will compose new music inspired by the signals of pulsars and by Ripples in Spacetime II by Chinese composer Jia Guoping.

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The Chinese composer Jia Guoping was inspired by CHINA FAST, the largest filled aperture radio telescope in the world to compose Ripples in Spacetime II. It was performed by BCMG musicians (clarinet, violin, cello and piano) in February 2021.

The telescope is located in a natural basin in Pingtang County, Guizhou, China and is made from 4450 individual plates. Its full name is Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope and its nickname is Tianyan (天眼) which literally means Sky's or Heaven's Eye. It is the size of 20 blue whales end to end!  You can hone into it on Google Earth HERE and to find out more about it click HERE.

CHINA FAST picture

One of the reasons FAST was built is to detect signals from pulsars and by 2018 it had detected 44. Pulsars are very dense, fast rotating, highly magnetized compact stars (usually neutron stars but also white dwarfs) that emit beams of electromagnetic radiation out of their magnetic poles. Their radiation can only be observed when the beam is pointing towards Earth (similar to the way a lighthouse can be seen only when the light is pointed in the direction of an observer), which means that beam produces a regular pulsed emission. 

Pulsars were first discovered by British astronomer Jocelyn Bell in 1967. Here she is talking about her discovery:

Here is what it sounds and looks like when a pulsar is detected. Watch out for the jump!

And below is an illustration of a pulsar:

Ripples in Spacetime II

In Ripples in Spacetime II, Jia Guoping takes two ideas from FAST.  First of all, Jia Guoping uses the first letter from each word of its name Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope to generate a series of notes/pitches. This is called musical cryptogram.

  • F = the note F
  • H = the note B (H denotes B in German)
  • M = the note E as in Do Re Mi
  • A = the note A
  • S = the note Eb (Es is German for Eb)
  • T = the note F is generated by the system below:

code for ripples

And so Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FHMASRT) becomes the notes:

F  B  E  A  Eb  F  

These notes are used to make the melodies and harmonies in the piece. In particular, Jia Guoping uses them to make melodic ostinatos. A melodic ostinato is a repeating pattern that uses different pitches/notes. Even if you don't read music, you can see the repeating patterns in the music below:

ripples excerpt 1

Secondly, Jia Guoping creates pulsar signals in his music inspired by the actual signals FAST has found. Here is an excerpt of the piece performed by BCMG,  As you listen, try to spot any ostinatos and the pulsar signal:

Another interesting aspect of the piece is that Jia Gupoing asks the musicians to use Chinese instrumental techniques on their traditional western classical instruments. these include:

  • Grace notes - this is where a very short note comes just before a longer note
  • Different kinds of vibrato - 吟 yin (small range vibrato) and 揉 rou (bigger range vibrato)
  • Different ways of plucking the strings 弹挑 tantiao
  • Different kinds of glissandi - 绰 chuo (upward glissando) and 注8 zhu (downward glissando)
  • Different ways of sweeping the strings 扫拂 saofu

Listen below to another piece by Jia Guoping, also called Ripples in Spacetime, composed for a Chinese music ensemble and try to notice some of the techniques described above.

Your Turn!

In this composing activity you are going to create melodic ostinatos using the same series of notes as Jia Guoping uses in Ripples in Spacetime II. You will then organise them to make your own composition - and create ripples in spacetime! 

Play the series of notes (note row) below from Ripples in Spacetime II on your instrument. You can change what octave you play any of the notes if you like i.e. play a high F instead of a low F. 

ripples notes 1

Making Melodic Ostinatos:

An ostinato is a repeating pattern in music. A melodic ostinato is a repeating pattern of different pitches/notes. In this activity, imagine them to be like the repeating signals received by a radio telescope. Start creating your music by making an ostinato with one of the notes from the note row. You could:

  • Make a long note drone
  • Repeat the note including as duplets, tripets and quadruplets (groups of 2, 3 or 4)
  • Make a rhythm on the note

And you can play around with:

  • Changing the dynamics (how loud or quiet)
  • Adding rests (silences of different lengths)
  • The number of beats between each repeat
  • Using different playing techniques and articulations including those used by Jia Guoping (vibratos, grace notes, glissandi)

Below and in the next column you will find some examples. You can also download lots of ideas HERE.  If you want to, you can use traditional music notation to write your ideas down using the music paper HERE. There are also graphic score examples and a blank sheet HERE. Writing down your ideas will help you to remember them.

1 Note Ostinatos:1 Note Ostinatos web 1graphic score 1 note ostinato

 2 Note Ostinatos:2 Note Ostinatos web 1

3 Note Ostinatos:3 Note Ostinatos web 1

Creating a pulsar signal

Your ostinatos are the background signals being received all the time by the telescope. Now create a pulsar signal which stands out within your ostinatos. You could:

  • Accent (make louder) one of the notes of your ostinato
  • Change the pitch of one of the notes of you ostinato
  • Add a short 'bleep' note into a long note 

Remember that the pulsar signal should stand out and be heard for a while before disappearing again. Will you have one or more pulsar signals

Composing your final piece:

You are now ready to compose your final piece. Organise your ostinatos into an order that you like. Decide how many repeats you will have for each ostinato - will they be the same each time you play them or will you change speed, rests, articulation, playing techniques, dynamics? You can revisit ostinatos as many times as you like. Decide how and when your pulsar signal will appear and disappear

Using Audacity:

You could also record, sequence and layer your different ostinatos by using the software Audacity to create a piece with lots of different voices. CLICK HERE to learn how to use Audacity. 

Please send any music you create to

Musical examples by violinist Maya Pluta.