Example image: Hubble Space Telescope image of the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula. New stars are forming in these giant pillars of gas and dust. Image credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University). Please find more images on the ‘Additional Information’ section.
Gather musical instruments. If many of your students play instruments, encourage them ahead of time to bring their own. It’s also possible to do this activity with one instrument that is passed around the class as each student takes turns. If you use one instrument, percussion instruments (drums, shakers) tend to work best.
Select one or more images. Possible sources include HST image galleries, observatory image galleries (i.e. ESO, NOAO), or The World at Night. Some suggested images and links are included in the additional information section.
Display your images, either by projecting on a screen or providing printouts.
Example image: The Helix Nebula. This is an example of a planetary nebula, the remnants of a Sun-like star that has died. Image credit: ESO. Please find more images on the ‘Additional Information’ section.
Guide students in understanding the image you’ve selected. This should be done as interactively as possible. Ask leading questions, such as:
- What type of object is depicted in this image (planet, nebula, galaxy, etc.)?
- What types of astronomical processes are represented by this image (star formation, galaxy collision, planetary geological processes, etc.)?
- What aspects of the image stand out visually (bright stars, spiral arms of a galaxy, planetary features, etc.)?
After the students understand the image, explain that they will be creating short improvisations based on their reactions to the image. Their improvisations should be based on visual aspects of the image, or the astronomical processes behind the image, or anything else related to the image that the students find interesting. It’s important to emphasize that there are many possibilities; students should not worry about making mistakes.
Create your own improvisation for the students. It’s important that the teacher try first. This provides students an example, and also shows that you as the teacher are willing to take creative risks.
Get your instruments ready. If students brought their own instruments, make sure they have their instruments available. If you are providing instruments, distribute them to the class (allow students to choose, and give students a minute or so to experiment with the instruments they’ve selected). If you have one instrument that you’re passing around, ask one student to volunteer to be first and pass the instrument to that student.
Invite students to take turns creating 15-30 second improvisations based on the image. The other students should try to explain how the music connects with the image. After a few students have offered explanations, the student creating the improvisation can explain his/her thoughts on how the music relates to the science phenomena depicted in the image.
The student who has just improvised should select who’s next (and pass the instrument if needed). This adds an element of surprise; no one knows who’s next. Make a game out of it!
Once all students have improvised, explore ways to extend the activity if time allows. Invite students to create additional improvisations based on aspects of the image that they haven’t explored yet. Or challenge students to create improvisations that are completely different from their first attempts. For instance, students could use different musical textures or different instruments altogether. If desired, select a different image.
If the class is large, you could break the class into small groups (3-4 students).