Saturday, July 13, 2013
Music Inspired by Astronomy
I just got back from a fascinating conference in New York on how astronomy has inspired other fields, like art, architecture, poetry, and music over the years. I was the after-dinner entertainmen...I mean...the banquet speaker and had a chance to share the results of my 30-plus years of collecting examples of astronomical music (assembled with the help of many generations of students).
Composers of both classical and popular music have long been inspired by the ideas and discoveries of astronomy. The picture with this post, for example, shows some sheet music from 1901 that was inspired by physicist (and inventor) Nikola Tesla's claim that his early radio equipment had intercepted signals from our neighbor planet Mars. Actually they turned out to be perfectly natural radio waves from the upper layers of the Earth atmosphere, but for a while the news media were touting the idea that martians might be signaling us.
If you want to see my full list of 133 "astronomy music" pieces that you can find on CD, it's at:http://aer.aas.org/resource/1/aerscz/v11/i1/p010303_s1?view=fulltext
With the growth of videos on YouTube and other web sites, you can actually watch some of these pieces being performed. Among my popular-music favorites on video are:
1) "Walking on the Moon" by the Police (comparing the feeling of being in love to being on the Moon's surface):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPpvHEsC_PM
2) "Hawking" by Todd Rundgren (which tries to put the listener in the body and mind of brilliant but wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk7uZO1iED8
3) "Why the Sun Really Shines" by They Might Be Giants (a children's song): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-KyciKHw-g
4) And, for a change of pace, the "Elements" song by 1960's humorist (and math professor) Tom Lehrer:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcS3NOQnsQM
A number of brave composers have put together musical pieces that are based on the rhythms or tones of actual astronomical observations. There is music based on radio signals from galaxies, on the index of how the Sun affects the Earth's magnetic field, and on the speed with which the planets orbit the Sun. A fun recent example is "Supernova Sonata" -- music based on a catalog of newly discovered exploding stars in other galaxies:http://vimeo.com/23927216
I have enjoyed collecting these musical examples of the power of astronomy to affect our imaginations and hope you enjoy hearing some of them.