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Interdisciplinary Approaches to Astronomy: The Music of the Spheres


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In this illustrated introduction we discuss a variety of musical pieces (both classical and popular) that were inspired by astronomical ideas, history, or discoveries. The pieces cited range from operas about Einstein, Kepler, Galileo and others, through the on-line Supernova Sonata and to a number of rock songs about black holes. We also discuss pieces where astronomical data have been transformed into music in several intriguing ways.
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14 CAPjournal, No. 20, August 2016
Many aspects of our modern understand-
ing of the Universe have inuenced com-
posers, in the realms of both classical and
popular music. Indeed, it may well be in
the musical arena that astronomy has had
its largest direct cultural inuence in our
time. In a recent review, I was able to cite
133 different pieces of recorded music
inuenced by serious astronomical ideas
(Fraknoi, 2012), not including casual refer-
ences to the Moon in lyrics such as “it’s
June, there’s the Moon, let’s spoon”. In that
review, I restricted myself to pieces that can
be found on CD, although the tremendous
growth of YouTube, Spotify and other online
video and audio repositories is making that
distinction less and less important.
Music about astronomers
The life and work of astronomers has
served as the inspiration for music from
opera to heavy metal and everywhere
in between. In part one of this piece we
discussed operas about Kepler, Galileo
and Einstein, but there are many other
musical tributes to noted astronomers.
The late- romantic Danish composer Hakon
Borresen wrote a 1924 ballet about Tycho
Brahe called At Uranienborg: Tycho Brahe’s
Dream. It takes place on the island of Hven,
Sweden, where Brahe had his observatory,
and it features dancers who portray stars,
comets and the supernova of 1572.
The year 1973, the 500th anniversary of
the birth of Copernicus, saw many celebra-
tions, and several musical compositions.
Perhaps the best known of these was Polish
composer Henrik Gorecki (Goretsky)’s 2nd
Symphony The Copernican.
In issue 18 of Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal, we explored some of the inuences of astronomy on ction,
drama, and poetry. In this second part of our interdisciplinary survey, we examine some musical examples of astronomical
Andrew Fraknoi
Chair of Astronomy
Foothill College, Los Altos, USA
Interdisciplinary, science in music
Interdisciplinary Approaches to Astronomy:
The Music of the Spheres (Part 2)
Figure 1. The author wi th two of the giants of Renais-
sance astronomy, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler
in Prague. Credit: A lex Frak noi
Despite not being the most well known,
the most interesting piece from this period
to my mind is Leo Smit’s Copernicus:
Narrative and Credo. In 1953, the com-
poser Smit became friends with the astron-
omer Fred Hoyle. They talked and hiked
together, and even wrote an unproduced
opera. Their 1973 Copernicus piece is an
oratorio of sorts, the last part of which is
a moving declaration of modern cosmic
belief written by Hoyle. A recording of this
has recently become available on CD1.
On their hikes, one of the many late-night
topics that Smit and Hoyle debated was
who would be more useful if they were sud-
denly transported into the far future — a
20th century composer or a 20th century
physicist. Hoyle then wrote a science c-
tion novel based, in part, on this debate
called October the First is Too Late (which
we mentioned in the science ction dis-
cussion in part 1 of this paper). Hoyle and
Smit later gave a concert and lecture at
Caltech, USA, based on the ideas and
music in October the First Is Too Late. The
Copernicus piece, it seems, grew out of
this earlier collaboration.
Moving forward to our time, and picking
one example, Stephen Hawking and his
work were the subject of great popular inter-
est, even before the release of the award-
winning lm The Theory of Everything in
2014. In 1989 the rock singer and song-
writer Todd Rundgren produced a song-
called Hawking, a rst-person meditation
on the British scientist’s work and disa-
bility. The song’s lyrics are quite poignant
— about being trapped in a broken body,
questioning why the disease that crip-
pled him happened and asking whether
Hawking can see further in space and time
because of his illness2.
Astronomer Carl Pennypacker and science
writer Judith Goldhaber also wrote a musi-
cal piece about Hawking, entitled Falling
through a Hole in the Air: The Incredible
Journey of Stephen Hawking. The Oakland
Symphony Chorus serenaded Hawking
with a selection from the piece when he
visited Berkeley, USA, in 20073.
Music about constellations
The constellations, which were the only
form of wide-screen entertainment availa-
ble to our ancestors, have provided inspi-
ration for many kinds of music over the
years. For example, Philip Glass’s Orion,
commissioned for the 2004 Olympic
Games in Athens, draws inspiration from
the myths in different cultures that come
CAPjournal, No. 20, August 2016
Interdisciplinar y Approaches to Astronomy: The Music of the Spheres (Part 2)
from this well-known constellation. The sec -
tions were performed using players and
native instruments from around the world,
including an Indian sitar, an Australian
didgeridoo, and a Chinese pipa4.
Hayg Boyadjian, a classical composer who
is an active amateur astronomer and a
member of the Amateur Telescope Makers
of Boston, has a number of pieces inspired
by constellations, including Scorpius Rising
and Cassiopeia. In both cases, the shape
of the constellation in the sky is reected in
the shape the notes make on the stave for
the principal motifs in the piece5.
Taking that idea further, we have the work
of John Cage, who is notorious in modern
classical music for undermining the rules
of how music is made. In one of his pro-
jects, entitled Atlas Eclipticalis, he put see-
through musical notation paper in front of
a star atlas, and let the positions of the
brighter stars in the atlas determine the
positions of the notes on the paper. The
notes that emerged were the ones that
were played. Such music is, as you might
imagine, much more fun to contemplate
than it is to listen to.
Music about astronomical objects
Focusing now on more specic topics in
astronomy, let us begin with music about
the Earth’s natural satellite. One of the best
known Moon songs is Walking on the Moon
by the Police, on their album Reggatta de
Blanc. In this song the singer compares the
feeling of being in love to walking on the
Moon — where the lower gravity allows you
to take much larger steps and where you
hear no outside sounds. There are other
songs that also use characteristics of the
Moon, especially its phases. The Whole of
the Moon by the Waterboys plays off the
idea of a crescent moon being a small part
of a full moon, and how the singer, wrapped
up in himself, saw and felt little in a relation-
ship, whilst his lover saw the larger emo-
tional picture. The 2002 song Earthshine
by the Canadian rock band Rush uses the
notion of earthshine as a metaphor for a
lover who feels his role in the relationship
is merely to be a faint reector of his belov-
ed’s glory. There are of course countless
others who have found inspiration in the
mystery of our closest neighbour.
Many classical music fans, when they
think of astronomical music, think rst of
Gustav Holst’s 20th century romantic suite,
The Planets. Unfortunately, this suite was
inspired by Holst’s interest in astrology
and not astronomy, and the music reects
astrological aspects of each planet. Holst
was introduced to astrology by the brother
of fellow British composer Arnold Bax, and
actually began casting horoscopes for
friends and colleagues. I no longer include
the piece in my list of astronomical music,
but I understand that the popularity of The
Planets is undeniable, and NASA, docu-
mentary lm makers, and several creative
astronomers have used the music to illus-
trate talks, slide shows, or lms about the
A number of modern composers have
written pieces to accompany Holst’s suite
and to portray other Solar System bod-
ies, including Pluto and some key aster-
oids. An example can be found on the ver-
sion of Holst’s piece conducted by Simon
Rattle, on the British multinational EMI’s
recording, which features pieces entitled
Pluto, Ceres and Asteroid 4179: Toutatis.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
recently commissioned a companion piece
to The Planets, based on native Maori con-
ceptions of the open star cluster Pleiades
and its use in determining the new year.
That piece, The Glittering Hosts of Heaven,
by Eve de Castro-Robinson, was recorded
on video and is available on Vimeo6.
There are a good number of other pieces
of music that are inspired by the modern
Figure 2. Engraving of Nicolaus Coper nicus, from the library of the Wellcome Trust. Cre dit: Wellcome Trust
16 CAPjournal, No. 20, August 2016
Interdisciplinar y Approaches to Astronomy: The Music of the Spheres (Part 2)
exploration of the planets and more are
being composed. For example, there
is the American composer Judith Lang
Zaimont’s suite of solo piano pieces from
2000 called Jupiter’s Moons. These were
inspired in part by seeing NASA images
coming back from the exploration of
Jupiter’s system and are available on an
Albany Records CD7.
The 1970 album by the British rock group
Van der Graaf Generator has a title that
has endeared it to my students: H to He,
Who Am the Only One. The three steps of
the proton–proton chain of nuclear fusion
are written out at the bottom of the cover.
One can only imagine what the typical rock
music fan who had not taken an astron-
omy course thought of the title. However,
the songs on the album have little to do
with astronomy.
When it comes to stellar evolution, there is
no topic like a black hole to inspire dramatic
songs. The Canadian rock group Rush, in
their 1977 album, Farewell to Kings, had
perhaps the most astronomically accurate
set of lyrics for a black hole song in Cygnus
X-1 (see Table 1)8.
Over the years, with the help of my students,
I have found ve other songs inspired by
black holes. The group Aqualung has a
song entitled Black Hole on their 2007
Album Memory Man. A song with the same
title appears on Amanda Lear’s 1979
album Never Trust a Pretty Face, in which
the destructive power of a relationship
is compared to the destructive power of
black holes.
The other three black hole songs that we
found are: Places Named After Numbers
by Frank Black — lead singer of the Pixies,
whose real name is Charles Thompson —
on his 1993 album Frank Black; Beyond the
Black Hole on the 1997 album Somewhere
Out in Space by the German metal band
Figure 4. The composer Hayg Boyadjian at
the Follen Church in Lexington, Massachuset ts.
Credit: Andrea Joliat
Figure 5. Judith L ang Zaimont.
Figure 3. The cover of the CD of Philip G lass’s piece
Orion. Cr edit: Image cour tesy of Or ange Mountain
In the constellation of Cygnus
There lurks a mysterious, invisible force
The black hole
Of Cygnus X-1
All who dare
To cross her course
Are swallowed by
A fearsome force…
Through the void
To be destroyed
Or is there something more?
Atomized at the core
Or through the astral door
To soar
I set a course just east of Lyra
And northwest of Pegasus
Flew into the light of Deneb
Sailed across the milk y way…
Headed for the heart of Cygnus
Headlong into mystery
The X-ray is her siren song
My ship cannot resist her long
Nearer to my deadly goal
Until the black hole
Gains control
Gamma-Ray; and Black Holes in the Sky
on the 1975 album Phoenix by the group
Labelle, whose lead singer is Patti LaBelle.
Quasars have not broken into the pub-
lic sphere in quite the same way as black
holes, but in the 1960s there was a brief
urry of public attention paid to quasar
CTA 102 because its radio signals were
claimed to include coded information from
an advanced civilisation. There was noth-
ing like a message there, it turned out, but
the American singing group The Byrds was
intrigued by the original story and wrote a
song entitled CTA 102 on their Younger than
Yesterday album. Radio astronomer Eugene
Epstein then thought it would be a lark to
include the names of the Byrds’ members
in a reference in a paper on CTA 102 he
was writing for the Astrophysical Journal.
He got it past the editors in proof stage9,
referring to the song as a private commu-
nication and using the names of the band
members as authors. He sent a note with
the paper to Columbia Records and Roger
McGuinn, the leader of the group, came to
visit him and even attended a colloquium
with him on the search for life elsewhere.
Table 1. Lyrics from t he Canadian rock group Rush’s
song Cygnus X-1.
Converting astronomical data to
The idea of using actual data from cosmic
objects to drive music in some way has
captured the imagination of a number of
composers and technicians. Data that peo-
ple used to make music several decades
ago include the instantaneous velocity of
each planet in its orbit, as a way playing
Kepler’s Music of the Spheres (Rodgers
& Ruff, 1979), and the index that meas-
ures how solar activity affects the Earth’s
magnetic eld (the Kp index of geomag-
netic activity)10.
More recently, the alternative Reggae band
Echo Movement used transit data for two
Kepler planets in the introduction to their
2012 album, Love and the Human Outreach.
The album also features songs inspired
by the uncertainty principle and quantum
entanglement, and by the Voyager mission
and Carl Sagan.
The notes for the music Supernova Sonata
are supplied by the distance and charac-
teristics of 241 Type Ia supernovae, seen
on the Canada–France–Hawaii telescope
Legacy Survey. Created by Alex H. Parker
from the Southwest Research Institute,
Texas, and Melissa L. Graham from the
University of California, Berkeley, USA,
the piece can be seen and heard on the
internet11. The volume in the piece is deter-
songs exploring ideas from modern astro-
physics13. If music by scientists in general
is your cup of tea, don’t miss Walter Smith’s
expansive website on physics songs14.
There are many other pieces of classical
and popular music with deep astronomi-
cal inuences. If you want to see more, you
can take a look at the catalogue of pieces
in my resource guide (Fraknoi, 2012).
The sampling of connections between
astronomy and the humanities considered
in these two articles was meant merely to
whet your appetite and makes no claim to
be comprehensive. Please see the sources
in the footnotes for many other examples
and ideas about the cross-fertilisation of
the elds. I continue to collect such exam-
ples, and would welcome additional sug-
gestions from any readers. My hope is that
you might be inspired by some of the above
to explore such connections on your own
and to share them with students and audi-
ences as I have. I wish you many hours of
enjoyable reading, watching and listening.
1 Leo Smit’s Copernicus: Narrative and Credo
is available on a CD from the American
record label Composers Recordings, Inc.
(CRI)’s American Masters series.
2 A performance of Todd Rundgren’s Hawking
is available on YouTube: v=jk7uZO1iED8
Interdisciplinar y Approaches to Astronomy: The Music of the Spheres (Part 2)
CAPjournal, No. 20, August 2016
mined by distance, the pitch by the light
curve, and the instrument playing the note
by the mass of the host galaxy.
The European Space Agency also real-
ised the potential of creating song from the
sounds of space and released an audio
track called The Singing Comet, a soni-
ca tio n of mag net ic el d data crea ted by the
Rosetta RPC–MAG instrument team. This
piece has had almost six million listens on
SoundCloud and has since been widely
used by musicians (Baldwin et al., 2016).
Astronomers as musicians
A different perspective on the relationship
between astronomy and music can be seen
in the work of astronomers who write and
perform music, starting in the 18th century
with William Herschel, who was a profes-
sional musician and a self-taught astrono-
mer12. We have mentioned Fred Hoyle pro-
viding text for a piece of music, but he is
by no means alone in doing this. Physicist
Lisa Randall recently provided text for an
opera based on the idea in her cosmology
book Warped Passages and astronomer
Fred Watson provided text for composer
Ross Edwards’ Fourth Symphony.
A group from NASA’s Goddard Space
Flight Center called The Chromatics have
put together a number of straightforward
Figure 6 . Canadian rock band Rush. Credit: Photo cour tesy of
Figure 7. Eugene Epstein at the Aerospace Corpora-
tion. Credit: Imag e courtesy of E. Epstein
Interdisciplinar y Approaches to Astronomy: The Music of the Spheres (Part 2)
Andrew Fraknoi is Chair of the Astronomy
Depar tment at Fo othill College near San
Francisco, and serves on the Board of Trus-
tees of the SE TI Institute and on the Lic k
Observator y Council. His book of teach-
ing activ ities on the Sun, Mo on and eclipses
(Solar Science) is published by the Natio nal
Science Teachers Association. He does
not play a musical instrument (although he
loves to listen to music); a few years ago he
got to write a nd perform astronomic al narra-
tion to Holst’s The Planets with the California
Symphony Orchestra.
3 A clip from the performance at Berkeley of
Carl Pennypacker and Judith Goldhaber’s
Falling through a Hole in the Air: The Incredi-
ble Journey of Stephen Hawking is available
4 A pipa is a four-stringed instrument that is
plucked and is something like a lute; a
didgeridoo is a wooden drone pipe wind
instrument; a sitar is an Indian string instru-
ment. Philip Glass’s Orion is available on a
CD from Orange Mountain Music.
5 For more on Boyadjian’s works, see:
6 The Glittering Hosts of Heaven by Eve de
Castro-Robinson is available at: https:// 86729 (For an interview with
Figure 8. This Type Ia supernova, seen with the Hubble S pace Telescope, is designated SN U DS10Wil, and
was one of the 241 Type Ia supernovae used in Alex H. Parker and Melissa L. Graham’s piece Supernova
Sonata. Credit: NASA , ESA , A. Riess (STScI a nd JHU), and D. Jones and S. Rodney (J HU)
the composer, see: /
enotestheplanets/ )
7 Judith Lang Zaimont’s Callisto piece can be
heard at:
watch?v=V1M7Rp6tKgw. Her website is
available at:
8 A British comic book version of the song
Cygn us X-1, produced in 1979, can be found
9 The reference to the Byrds in Eugene
Epstein’s paper on CTA 102 can be found in
Astrophysical Journal volume 151 in the
second paragraph of page 31.
10 The index that measures how solar activity
affects the Earth’s magnetic eld is known
as the Kp index of geomagnetic activity.
The music inspired by this is by composer
Charles Dodge; it can be heard at:
Hsnc67yw and is explained at: http://music.
11 A recording and explanation of Supernova
Sonata by Alex H. Parker and Melissa L.
Graham can be found here: http://www.
12 A CD with a selection of William Herschel’s
music is available on Newport Classics
under the title Sir William Herschel: Music by
the Father of Modern Astronomy.
13 More information about the Chromatics:
14 A listing of physics songs: http://www.
Baldwin, E. et al. 2016, CAPjournal, 19, 30
Duckles, V. 1962, Publications of the
Astronomical Society of the Pacic, 74,
436, 55 (http://adsabs.har
full/19 62PASP...74...55D)
Fraknoi, A. 2006, Astronomy Education
Review, 5, 1, 139 (
Fraknoi, A. 2012, Astronomy Education
Review, 11, 1 (
Hoyle, F. 1966, October the First is Too Late,
(London: William Heinemann)
Rodgers, J. & Ruff, W. 1979, American
Scientist, May/June, 286
CAPjournal, No. 20, August 2016
Full-text available
Efforts to place recent climate observations in a long-term context have been driven by concerns about whether the global warming trend of the 20th century is part of natural climate variability or whether it is linked to increased anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A new perspective on the climate and its changes is offered, highlighting those that occur due to natural cycles, which are generally not widespread. With the historical background on how the climate varied in the past, statistical research was conducted using time series techniques and spectral/harmonic analysis (Fourier series and spectrograms), which allowed the determination of periodic natural phenomena and their magnitudes in national variations of temperature. It was identified that the air surface temperature in Brazil expresses cycles of 4 years (oceanic-atmospheric origin related to ENSO), 33 years (Brückner cycles, lunar-solar origin) and 82 years (lower Gleissberg cycle, solar origin). Based on an alternative oscillatory model that incorporates such natural cycles, future projections of the air temperature in the country were prepared. For the year 2100, it is predicted that the air temperature in Brazil may reach the value of +1.8 ± 0.6 °C, according to the natural oscillatory model. In comparison, conventional models typically used by the IPCC indicate, by the end of the century, an increase of: +2.9 ± 1.2 °C (RCP4.5 model, with mitigation); +3.9 °C (SRES A1 model); and +5.7 ± 1.7 °C (RCP8.5 model, without mitigation). The most extreme values of conventional models reach proportions up to 4 times greater than the results obtained in the alternative model provided here. Analyzing the adherence of the models, it is concluded that the conventional models are overestimating and exaggerating a warming rate in Brazil that, in reality, has not been observed. The proposed natural oscillatory model, which has a high correlation with the data observed so far, indicates an increase in temperature in Brazil that may reach a modest value of +0.8 °C in 2040. For the same year, the SRES A1 and RCP8.5 models indicate values around +2.0 °C – which represents more than double of the projection based on natural climate cycles. Based on the projections that indicate a moderate warming, not so exaggerated, a new perspective of a less terrifying future climate is offered. In a context in which pernicious alarmist discourses predominate, spreading scenarios of apocalyptic global warming, it is hoped that new pondered views could help to appease the level of concern that today, has culminated in undesirable side effects - especially the high levels of eco-anxiety that has afflicted significant portions of society.
From the middle of the 20th century onwards, musicians increasingly looked to the world of science for new ideas. In this chapter we look at the influence of science on new musical trends such as the serialism of Stockhausen and Boulez and the “stochastic music” of Xenakis. Scientists like Einstein and Heisenberg were cited as sources of inspiration in the way that poets or philosophers might have been in an earlier age. By the end of the 20th century, musical works were being composed using real astronomical data—as in Fiorella Terenzi’s Music from the Galaxies—or, moving from outer space to the Earth’s oceans, the songs of humpback whales.
Full-text available
SEE IMPORTANT NOTE AT THE END> This annotated resource guide presents 133 pieces of music inspired by astronomical ideas, discoveries, or history, organized in 22 subject categories. Both classical and popular music are included, but only when a clear connection to astronomy could be established. Depending on your musical tastes, you are likely to find some pieces resonating with you and others like the squeaking noise on a blackboard when chalk is held at the wrong angle. But some of the ideas and analogies the pieces represent may intrigue you and your students. Only music available on CD is included, so that educators who want to use some of these in the classroom can purchase a legal copy. A short appendix lists a number of astronomers who have recorded songs and self-published them. NOTE: An updated, expanded guide to astronomical music is available at:
Full-text available
SEE NOTE AT END! We list and briefly describe over a hundred pieces of classical and popular music inspired by reasonable astronomical ideas, and we discuss ways that instructors (and those working in informal settings) can use music to enhance an astronomy class or program. Written and Web-based resources for exploring astronomical influences in music are also provided. IMPORTANT NOTE: A later, more extensive astronomy music catalog of mine is available at:
The first publicly sponsored, modern observatories came into being to serve the needs of navigation and time-keeping, and their first publications were, correspondingly, in the form of almanacs, ephemerides and the like. Early arrivals on the scene included La Connoissance des Temps (Paris Observatory, 1679) and Nautical Almanacs (Greenwich Observatory, 1767; San Fernando Observatory (Spain), 179...
October the First is Too Late
  • F Hoyle
Hoyle, F. 1966, October the First is Too Late, (London: William Heinemann)
  • J Rodgers
  • W Ruff
Rodgers, J. & Ruff, W. 1979, American Scientist, May/June, 286
  • E Baldwin
Baldwin, E. et al. 2016, CAPjournal, 19, 30
  • J Rodgers
  • W Ruff
Rodgers, J. & Ruff, W. 1979, American Scientist, May/June, 286