The universe and music

By Fred Watson 25 October 2011
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Back in the day, Renaissance men were masters of science and art, taking inspiration for their music from space.

HERE’S SOMETHING TO THINK about this summer while the constellation of Orion is prominent in the north-eastern sky. When you look at this glittering star group, with its famous saucepan and the accompanying star-clusters of the Pleiades and Hyades (the Seven Sisters and face of Taurus, the Bull), ask yourself whether you can hear music.

If you live in a city, there’s a good chance you will – the ‘doof doof’ beat of a passing P-plater. But the sheer brilliance of these stars – in reality much more luminous than the Sun – is something that has inspired at least one talented musician: the Australian composer Ross Edwards, who featured them in his award-winning symphony Star Chant (2001).

Ross was by no means the first musician to find inspiration in the night sky. Perhaps the best known is Gustav Holst (1874-1934) whose work The Planets, crafted between 1914 and 1916, is one of the most performed of any British composer’s.

While Holst concentrated on the astrological significance of the planets rather than their physical appearance, the work remains popular with music-loving astronomers. Written more than a decade before the discovery of Pluto, it ends with Neptune – just as the inventory of the planets does today.

Even rarer than star-struck composers are astronomers who have been directly inspired by music. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is a well-known example, building musical ideas into his 1619 book Harmony of the Worlds. And 250 years ago, a young German composer named William Herschel (1738-1822) settled in England. Today, he’s remembered as one of the greatest astronomers who ever lived, and as the man who in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus.

His musical activities inevitably waned as he devoted the remainder of his 83 years to astronomy and telescope construction. Much of his musical output survives, however, and the mathematical precision that he subsequently applied to the study of the heavens is evident amid the genteel charm of his symphonies and chamber pieces. 

Fred Watson is Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran in north-western NSW.

Source: Australian Geographic (93) Jan – Mar, 2009.