Nine of the best pieces of music inspired by science

On the 47th anniversary of man first walking on the moon, Alec Evans explores the sound of science

On the Moon (Credit: NASA)
Published: July 18, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon 47 years ago today at 2:56am GMT. That momentous occasion is emblematic of the scientific advances that we have made during the last 200 years, advances that have managed to have a huge influence on the arts and culture. To celebrate, we take a look at some of the best music inspired by science...


Gustav Holst, The Planets Suite (1918)

As he entered his forties, Gustav Holst became fascinated with theosophy and astrology, largely thanks to Alan Leo’s book What is a Horoscope? It resulted in The Planets, an orchestral suite in seven movements, one of the most famous orchestral pieces in the history of British classical music. Each movement is named after a planet in the solar system, from the vicious ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, through to the triumphant ‘Jupiter, the bringer of Jollity’. It takes influence from Holst’s life and events of the time – 'Mars' was written shortly after the outbreak of World War I.

Colin Matthews, Pluto: The Renewer (2000)

Kent Nagano, who at the time conducted Hallé orchestra, approached Matthews to work on a conclusion to Holst’s The Planets, which only went from Mercury through to Neptune. Stylistically, Pluto’s use of atonality was different enough to sound like he was putting his own musical stamp on it, but the 'Mars'-style strings and the 'Neptune'-style element of mystery made it similar enough to bring back memories of the original. Unfortunately for Matthews, Pluto was no longer defined as a planet from 2006.

Michael Zev Gordon, Allele (2010)

In early 2009, biomedical research charity The Wellcome Trust approached British composer Michael Zev Gordon to write a piece of music for a research project into the genetics of musical ability. The DNA of over 250 singers and the DNA of over 250 non-musicians were compared, and Gordon based a piece of choral music on the findings, giving each singer a musical part based on their own personal genetic analysis. The music, set to text by Ruth Padel, is unsettling and dissonant in nature, but not much more avant-garde than many 20th-century composers such as Britten.

Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (1976)

It is well known that Einstein was fond of music, playing the violin and piano while enjoying Bach and Beethoven’s work. But as someone who was left cold by Debussy and Wagner, one can only imagine what he might have thought of Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach. The work gets rid of usual orchestral arrangements of operas in favour of simply synthesisers, woodwind and voices, and has four acts, stretching over five hours, without a specific plot, but making reference to events throughout Einstein’s life.

David Sulzer, Reading Stephen Colbert (2012)

Sulzer was no stranger to interesting musical experiments, such as his Thai Elephant Orchestra (featuring actual elephants!). Reading Stephen Colbert's aim was to create a piece of music based on brain waves. He hooked himself up to some electrodes to a machine designed by Computer Music Center director Brad Garton that turns brainwaves into music. After this, he reads a book by comedian Stephen Colbert, his laughter helping to change the nature of the music. The avant-garde work’s performances involve Sulzer simply sitting and reading a book.

Haydn, Il Mondo Della Luna (1777)

Almost 200 years before mankind first set foot on the moon and over 50 years before William Whewell invented the word ‘scientist’, Haydn wrote this comic opera, translating as The World on the Moon. It sits on a libretto set by Carlo Galdoni and tells the story of a fake astrologer called Ecclitico. It received its premiere at the wedding celebrations of Count Nikolaus Esterházy. Musically, it is typically Haydn, but in terms of subject matter it would have been unique.

Steve Reich, Three Tales (2002)

Three Tales is a opera composed by Reich in reference to three technological advances of the 20th century. A 'video opera' accompanied by a screen with videos, it is scored for vocal quintet, percussion, piano, string quartet and pre-recorded tape. The first tale, 'Hindenburg', is about the zeppelin, the second, 'Bikini', is about the atom bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and '50s and the final is 'Dolly', about the cloning of Dolly the sheep. All the movements’s video, audio and pictures set by his wife Beryl Korot, relate to the three events over Reich’s minimalist compositions. April 2015 saw a performance of the work at London’s IMAX theatre.

John Cage, Etudes Australes (1975)

The American avant-garde composer, most famous for his 1952 composition 4'33", was often a composer to let his musical abstractness show. His solo piano work Etudes Australes is based on star charts used by astronomers to examine the night sky. Featuring 32 etudes across 4 books, the nature of the stars is reflected in the random and disjunct placing of notes in the score.

Richard Strauss, ‘Of Science’ from Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)

Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra was based on the Nietzsche philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, that dealt with science and religion. In the novel, Nietzsche, himself an admirer of Wagner, controversially wrote 'God is dead' in the section The Gay Science, questioning the relevance of religion and suggesting we were moving towards nihilism. This movement reinterprets the beginning motif of Also Sprach Zarathustra in a fugal manner, showing that Strauss was partial to science experiments of his own within his music.

For information on two new works relating to science, listen out for upcoming premieres of Iris ter Schiphorst’s Gravitational Waves’ by NYO at the BBC Proms on 6 August and Joby Talbot’s Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity’ by The Philharmonia at Royal Festival Hall.


Alec Evans

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