10 awesome pieces of astronomy-inspired music

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, June 26, 2014

I almost titled this blog “The 10 most awesome …” but I realized — as capable as our Web server is — it probably couldn’t handle the stupendous number of comments, criticisms, and rants that I’d get. That said, I’m looking forward to hearing from you regarding which songs I should have included in this list and why. C’mon. Make your case.

#10: Barenaked Ladies, “The History of Everything” from Hits from Yesterday and the Day Before

This may be the one song every reader will have heard at least part of. It’s the theme song of CBS’s hit series, The Big Bang Theory. And although they missed the age of the universe (hey, what’s a few hundreds of millions of years between friends?), they’re spot on when they say, “It all started with the Big Bang!”

#9: Gustav Holst, “Mars the Bringer of War” from The Planets

I don’t care if Holst did compose this album because of his affinity for astrology, his seven compositions (one for each planet known at the time) are epic. And he gets the ball rolling with this bombastic creation. Blood-red planet, indeed!

HammerFall's album Threshold contains the song "Titan," which describes a post-mega-war attempt to move Earth's civilization to that moon of Saturn.

#8: HammerFall, "Titan" from Threshold

This Swedish heavy metal group’s song postulates a future great war. The few of us who are left decide to bail on our poisoned world and head to Titan. This song is as heavy as this list gets. Lucky for you I decided to forgo my affection for extreme metal.

#7: Rush, “Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage” from Farewell to Kings

This Canadian band has produced some of the most listenable music in rock. “Spirit of Radio,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Trees,” and the entire 2112 album spring to mind. But the lyrics for one of my favs, “Cygnus X-1,” read like an astronomy text: “Invisible to telescopic eye … Infinity, the star that would not die … All who dare to cross her course … Are swallowed by her fearsome force.” Plus, Rush gave Cygnus X-1’s position relative to Lyra, Pegasus, and Deneb. And they also correctly pegged the fact that the outer regions of black holes emit X-rays. A+, guys!

#6: Mike Oldfield, “Saved by a Bell” from Discovery

This song has the yin and the yang. The first verse asks, “Would you like to look through my telescope?” and the second — like every observer — says, “I hope the sky stays clear for us.” But then the chorus appears, and man, is it dark! And I mean dark in a non-nighttime sense.

Not many songs contain as much astronomy as "Galaxy Song," which you'll find on Monty Python Sings.

#5: Monty Python, “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python Sings

With lyrics like, “Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars. It’s a hundred thousand light-years side to side. It bulges in the middle, 16 thousand light-years thick. But out by us, it’s just 3 thousand light-years wide,” Monty Python created one of the all-time great astronomy songs. Yeah, yeah, the numbers may not be up to date, but it’s what was in their hearts that counts. Plus, even to this day, the ending is a hoot!

#4: The Rolling Stones, “2000 Light-Years from Home” from Their Satanic Majesties Request

In 1967, the Stones basically narrated a trip into deep space. Unfortunately, at each check-in point — 100, 600, 1,000, and 2,000 light-years from home — it’s still “so very lonely.” Perhaps we can draw hope from two lines in the last verse: “See you on Aldebaran; safe on the green desert sand.” OK, maybe not.

#3: They Might Be Giants, “Why Does the Sun Shine” and “Why Does the Sun Really Shine” from Here Comes Science

I could have populated this list with 10 songs just from this creative duo. But “Why Does the Sun Shine?” and its sequel just may be the catchiest astronomy-themed songs ever penned. The first actually is a cover. The original appeared in 1959 on the album Space Songs by Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans.

#2: Pink Floyd, “Eclipse” from Dark Side of the Moon

Floyd’s Dark Side is one of the top-selling albums (a disk like a CD, kids, but bigger and made of vinyl) of all time, and its 10th and last cut, “Eclipse,” is my fav. I can’t tell you how many talks I’ve given after total solar eclipses where I’ve combined this song with a montage of images.

Kimono My House by Sparks contains many musical treats. The author's favorite, however, is 'Talent is an Asset,' a ditty about a young Albert Einstein.

#1: Sparks, “Talent is an Asset” from Kimono My House

The brother team of Russell and Ron Mael have been a source of musical creativity for four decades. If you want proof, just listen to “Talent is an Asset.” It’s the coolest song about Einstein ever. Example: “Look at Albert, isn’t he a sight; growing, growing at the speed of light.” Oh, yeah.

BONUS: Freedy Johnston, “The Farthest Lights” from Blue Days, Black Nights

Back in the ’90s when I was working as the planetarium director of the Kansas City Museum, I got to have dinner with singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston a few times because we had a mutual friend. He also once played a concert at the museum. I liked asking him about music and touring, and he liked asking me about astronomy. I’m pretty sure “The Farthest Lights” was the result of one of our conversations. In fact, from the first time I heard it, I’ve considered it “my song.” And, although I relate to lyrics like, “An astronomer all my life,” my wife and I have a much (much!) better relationship than the one Johnston describes in the song. Give it a listen. I think if you’re into observing, you’ll relate to most of this ballad.

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