Music To Contemplate The Night Sky

Music is your passport to the galaxies and beyond. NASA / Hubble Heritage Team

I know you like astronomy. Do you also like music that evokes the wonder and mystery of the night sky? When I’m out in the countryside observing I listen to nature, but at home I’ll keep a radio on in the background. When I hear something that fits the mood I try to catch the name of the piece so I can get my own copy.

I’m a big classical nut and have been ever since age 11 when I first heard Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, famous for its cannon volleys and powerful rhythms. I still like pulsating classical and rock alike, but at night my ears seek music’s quieter, contemplative side, an aspect more in sync with the vibe we get when soaking up a starry sky.

Before I give you my list, longtime astronomy educator and music lover Andrew Fraknoi has been hard at work on a list of his own. Fraknoi loves going to the symphony and often incorporates music into his astronomy teachings. Over his long career he’s created a lovely catalog of Music Inspired by Astronomy. True to its title, Fraknoi only includes music connected to astronomy, the reason you won’t find The Planets by Gustav Holst listed. Although well known and often used in planetarium shows, astrology inspired Holst’s composition.

The Supernova Sonata was created by two astronomers using supernova observations. Alex Parker and Melissa Graham

His catalog is extensive and includes both popular and classical music and where possible, links to the pieces so you can listen to them. Some of the music is truly far out in every sense of the word. I’ve included a few selections I enjoyed below. Clicking the link will take you to the recording:

Supernova Sonata by Alex Parker and Melissa Graham is a piano and bass piece by two astronomers, with the music is based on the characteristics of 241 Type Ia supernova explosions. Be sure to watch the graphic that accompanies the piece. The duration of each “burst” or note relates to how long the supernova was visible.

Symphony No. 4 — Star Chant — 1. Northern Sky by Ross Edwards. The first movement of the symphony is fantastic especially the long, tinkling climax starting about 11 minutes in. Gives me the chills! Here’s the second movement, titled Southern Sky.

Halley Came to Jackson by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Great pickin’! Wonderful country song about Halley’s Comet in 1910. Will touch your heart.

Bold Orion by Susan McKeown. “Great images of the constellation of Orion the hunter in the winter skies, contrasted with the impermanence of earthly things.” — A. Fraknoi

Orion by Kaija Saariaho. Part I – Memento mori; Part II: Winter Sky, Part III: Hunter. Really spacey stuff for symphony orchestra. Hold onto something while listening or you might just float away.

The Hubble Cantata by Paola Prestini. I picked a brief selection titled Dark Matter. Avant garde stuff yet curiously informative.

The following are a few personal, lifelong favorite compositions, most of which weren’t inspired by astronomy but still evoke the night and the vastness of space:

Musica Celestis by Aaron Jay Kernis: Pure beauty. Listen to this and life’s little problems will feel, well … little.

Atmospheres by György Ligeti. Captures the sheer terror of outer space and an endless universe. Used in the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You might get freaked out listening to it late at night.

Path of Totality: Eclipse 2017 by David Fogel and Joel Woolbright. A beautiful, reflective composition looking back at the total eclipse of 2017.

 

Cirrus cloud swirls over Duluth, Minn. Bob King

Nuages by Claude Debussy. Nuages or “clouds” is the first of Debussy’s three nocturnes and the most atmospheric. Much said with few notes. A favorite since high school.

Six Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach. Great music to accompany a night of solo skygazing at the telescope. Bach will keep you company, working the cello as you work your telescope.

Autumn Gardens by Einojuhani Rautavaara. His rich, slightly dissonant chords will make the universe expand around you.

Sleep by Eric Whitacre. A choral piece with beautiful lyrics that you’ll want to put on just before you go to bed.

Night Song by Wayne Barlow. Kick back and reflect on the day while you’re under the star-studded sky. One of the most unhurried compositions I’ve ever heard.

Blue Cathedral by Jennifer Higdon. Both gentle and dazzling. At its conclusion, turn up the volume, and you will ascend to heaven.

The Planets by Gustav Holst. Astrology or not I have to include this one because it takes us to these places in our imagination. Great tunes also! My favorites are Jupiter and Saturn.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams. For many, one of the most moving and beautiful works ever written. Settle in and be swept away by the grandeur of this composition based on a theme by a 16th century English composer.

Music of the Spheres by Ruud Langgaard. Composed in 1916 — this dude was way ahead of his time in creating “space music.”

King of Pain by The Police — I added this just for fun because it mentions sunspots. At least I think Sting’s referring to a sunspot 😉

There are so many more, but we’ll finish up with a smile with Tom Lehrer’s The Elements Song, a true feat of memory and a delight to listen to. Do you have any celestial favorites? Let us know by leaving a comment — thanks and happy listening!

17 Responses

  1. caralex

    I know what you mean with your description of Fantasia on a Theme! Ralph Vaughan Williams is the quintessentially English composer! His Lark Ascending is also beautiful. What do you think of Holst’s The Planets? I love Jupiter!

    1. astrobob

      Thanks, Carol for bringing up The Planets — I had meant to include it and just added it. My favorites from that are Jupiter and Saturn. Venus is pretty nice, too. Love the Lark Ascending!

  2. Nancy Smith

    Thanks for this playlist. Some of the music I already knew, but most of it will be new to me. I appreciate the links.

    I also appreciate the just-for-fun song references at the end, especially the nod to Tom Lehrer. In that group, I’d add the Galaxy song from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”. That’s a fun one to sing.

  3. Nancy Smith

    Thank you for the playlist. Some of the music I already know, but much of it I don’t. I’ll enjoy following the links and expanding my musical knowledge!

    I’d add to the “just-for-fun” list the Galaxy song, from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. That’s great fun to sing!

  4. Greg Hilliard

    John Phillips Sousa was a prolific composer of marches. He wrote one for nearly every occasion, including “The Transit of Venus March”. Of course it’s not very well known, as it only gets played every 120 or so years.

  5. Gudrun

    If you like/love Choral music, I have a fabulous one: Octavio Paz’ poem “Water Night” set for choir by Eric Whitacre. I have listened many a night alone or with family while watching the stars. Expansive. Gorgeous!

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