Op. 46 – Carnival of the Subatomic Particles

Flute (piccolo, alto flute, bosun's whistle), clarinet (bass clarinet), violin, cello, piano with narrator


Carnival of the Subatomic Particles was conceived as a theatrical presentation featuring music and dance with narration. It attempts to bring to life for a general audience the world of particle physics through music and motion. Of special interest here is the attempt to find specific analogies to the subatomic structures in the construction of the music and the dance. Thus, the dancers are to be costumed clearly in accordance with the particles to be represented. Likewise the music is organized through specific intervals associated with each of the quarks and leptons, which form themselves into short motives for the composite particles, or hadrons, which in turn become the basis for extended melodies in the atoms. Rhythmic patterns depict the strong force holding the particles together and the weak force causing their decay.

A concert presentation with just the narration and music is also possible.

This work was commissioned and performed by Music's Recreation and received its premiere on April 1, 2007. The accompanying narration was written by physicist N. David Mermin. Carnival of the Subatomic Particles is featured in a column by Dr. Mermin in the July issue of Physics Today.

A good introduction to the Standard Model of particle physics can be found at The Particle Adventure.


  1. Introduction
  2. Meet the Quarks
  3. Pion
  4. Kaon
  5. Eta-C
  6. Upsilon
  7. Protons
  8. Neutrons
  9. Electrons
  10. Neutrinos
  11. Mu and Tau
  12. Higg’s Boson
  13. XIII. Hydrogen

I. Introduction
I imagine great masses of swirling matter which eventually coalesce into the various types of particles.

II. Meet the Quarks
This consists of six little pieces, each for a solo instrument, each depicting a different quark. Each quark is represented by a different musical interval. The up quark, being the most commonly found quark, is represented by the most common interval, the perfect fifth. The down quark is represented by the major third (the next most common interval). The strange quark is represented by the augmented fourth, which is usually held to be the strangest interval in music. The charm quark is represented by a minor third. The bottom quark is represented by a minor second, and the top quark by a major second. Each particle has a corresponding anti-particle which, though not represented in this movement, are associated with the complementary interval (i.e. anti-up is a perfect fourth, anti-down is a minor sixth, anti-charm is a major sixth, etc.). The pieces in this section are:

  1. Up (piano)
  2. Down (cello)
  3. Strange (clarinet)
  4. Charm (flute)
  5. Bottom (bass clarinet)
  6. Top (violin)

III. Pion
The next four movements are devoted to mesons, particles which each contain a quark and an anti-quark. A Pion contains an up (perfect fifth) and anti-down (minor sixth) quark. This piece is based on perfect fifths and minor sixths.

IV. Kaon
This is made from anti-up (perfect fourth) and strange (augmented fourth) quarks.

V. Eta-C
This is made from a charm (minor third) and anti-charm (major sixth) quark. Musically this is a canon in inversion. The jazzy feel of this music should be quite charming.

VI. Upsilon
This is made from a bottom (minor second) and anti-bottom (major seventh) quark. This movement features the dark sound of the alto flute.

VII. Protons
The next two movements represent baryons, particles which consist either of three quarks or three anti-quarks. The Proton consists of two up quarks (perfect fifth) and one down quark (major third).

VIII. Neutrons
The neutron is made of one up quark and two down quarks.

IX. Electrons
The next three movements depict particles known as leptons. These are illustrated through rhythm rather than intervals. I imagine the electron as a very busy little thing which gets to spin around the nucleus of an atom. The rhythm of the violin represents the electron itself and the other instruments illustrated its hectic motion.

X. Neutrinos
These little particles have next to no mass and no charge. They are very hard to detect because they tend not to react with any other matter. The neutrinos are represented by the violin and cello, whose serene music remains unaffected by the increasingly massive particles and objects they pass through. Twice the neutrinos appear on scientific detection devices as a strong pizzicato.

XI. Mu and Tau
These particles are like electrons only heavier. The violin and cello play rhythms similar to the electron’s rhythm only slower.

XII. Higg’s Boson
The mysterious particle which holds all of matter together, its existence is only theorized, but it has never been observed. This piece follows the attempt to detect the Higg’s boson by sending protons crashing into each other so that the resulting debris can be analysed. The presence of the Higg’s boson is signaled by a blast from the bosun’s whistle, a type of whistle used by sailors to signal each other at sea.

XIII. Hydrogen
Now the subatomic particles come together to form a whole atom, containing a proton, a neutron and an electron. Just as the music for the mesons and baryons was built from motives consisting of the intervals of quarks, this movement contains a long melody built from the motives of the proton and neutron, and you can also hear the electron whizzing around.


The music from Carnival of the Subatomic Particles may also be presented in two suites:

Subatomic Suite no. 1

  1. Pion
  2. Kaon
  3. Eta C
  4. Upsilon
  5. Mu and Tau

Subatomic Suite no. 2

  1. Proton
  2. Neutron
  3. Electron
  4. Hydrogen