Catalogs are useful in astronomy. Now there's one dedicated to musical pieces influenced by astronomy.
Since the profession began, astronomers have relied on catalogs for a plethora of different things: object coordinates, lunar phases, stellar magnitudes, planetary conjunctions, galaxy morphologies, star cluster diameters, you name it. The list is endless. Now, a new kind of catalog is available: an astronomical music catalog. Let’s meet the person the behind the catalog.
Andrew Fraknoi, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, and recently retired Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Foothill College, is well known for his lifetime work in making astronomy eminently accessible to not only his students but also the general public. He has a long list of credentials and recognitions, the most recent being the 2019 Space Educator: Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Space Club.
Fraknoi discovered early on, while still in graduate school, that he had a knack for communicating his passion for astronomy to a wide range of audiences. Throughout his long and successful teaching career, a large fraction of his students were non-science majors. Striving to make astronomy vibrant and accessible to them, Fraknoi drew on connections between astronomy and more familiar disciplines and pursuits, such as art, poetry, philately, cartoons, science fiction, ecology, and also music.
Music has always been an integral part of Fraknoi’s life. He and his wife are avid symphony-goers, but he listens to a wide range of genres, from classical to Broadway to rock-and-roll and beyond. So while teaching astronomy, Fraknoi was naturally tuned to musical references in his quest to inspire his students. Having used music extensively in his decades-long career, Fraknoi figured it might be useful not only to himself but also to other astronomy educators and researchers to gather this information in one place.
Thus Fraknoi’s catalog, “Music Inspired by Astronomy,” was forged.
The catalog is organized both by astronomical topic (Interested in black holes? Head to that section. Might eclipses be your thing? There’s a section for that, too) and by musical genre. The current iteration of the catalog has more than 250 pieces listed, many with embedded links to YouTube videos or other online sources.
Which musical genres are included in the catalog? Well, every kind. However, Fraknoi is very clear about one thing: “I only collect music where there is a serious intention about including significant and correct astronomy, not just the use of random astronomical phrases.” This means, for example, there are no songs that are limited to rhymes of “Moon” and “June.” By the same token, Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” is not included in the catalog due to its astrological, and not astronomical, basis.
The breadth and scope of the entries is staggering. Even for those musically inclined, there are certainly surprises in there.
Among Fraknoi’s favorites are works that explore a unique connection between astronomy and music. One good example is the “Supernova Sonata” by Alex Parker and Melissa Graham. In this piece, 241 Type Ia supernovae observed between 2003–2006 with the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope provide the basis for the musical notes: Each note corresponds to a supernova, calibrated in pitch and volume depending on distance and stretch (how the supernova brightens and then fades), while different instruments represent masses of the host galaxy.
There are some interesting pieces in the catalog showcasing collaborations between composers and professional astronomers. Leo Smit’s “Copernicus: Narrative and Credo,” written on occasion of the 500th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’s birth, features a declaration of cosmic belief by Fred Hoyle, who was good friends with the composer. Mario Livio (formerly of the Space Telescope Science Institute) was an adviser on and narrated “The Hubble Cantata” by Juilliard graduate Paola Prestini, while Fred Watson, an English-born Australian astronomer, contributed the text to Australian composer Ross Edwards’s “Symphony No. 4 ‘Star Chant.’” Even Nobel laureates have gotten in on the musical game: George Smoot, winner of the 2006 Nobel prize, collaborated with Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead, on “Rhythms of the Universe,” a multisensory exploration of the cosmos.
Fraknoi regularly dips into his catalog to pick a piece or two for a lecture or an outreach event. For example, when discussing the Moon’s reduced gravity vis-a-vis Earth’s, Fraknoi plays excerpts from “Walking on the Moon,” in which The Police compare how light one feels in love with how light one would feel on the Moon. Another popular lecture series, “Einstein for Poets,” in which Fraknoi explains Einstein’s scientific theories and ideas without resorting to any mathematics, gets kicked off with “Einstein on the Beach,” an opera by Philip Glass.
If you're an astronomy educator, you, too, will find inspiration from Fraknoi’s catalog. Dip into it, and see where the notes take you. Maybe you’re a researcher working on a paper — tune into a cosmic overture for background music.
Once the catalog began to gain traction, fellow colleagues and students began sending Fraknoi suggestions, for which he was and continues to be grateful. Do you have any recommendations? You can drop Fraknoi a line here. But remember: Only serious astronomical musical suggestions will be considered.