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From Rush to David Bowie: 10 best songs inspired by science

The world of music can often seem relatively far removed from science; after all, one is a creative art, and the other is a subject based on logic and order. Often modern musicians will neglect to learn much of the theory behind music, opting instead to fast-track their path to stardom by shunning octaves, keys and music reading in favour of the creative element of music creation.

However, the understanding of sound is an essential facet of physics and music. I can recall my multitalented physics teacher bringing in an acoustic guitar for our lesson in sound dynamics back in my school days. The entertaining lesson simultaneously taught us the laws of music and physics.

While most musicians enter their flash profession with a motive outside of science and exploration – with Bruce Springsteen openly admitting to setting out to impress the ladies and The Beatles motivated initially by money – some appear to enjoy the more experimental side of music.

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As an example, Brian Eno has carved out his legacy as the oddball of rock ‘n’ roll with his run of experimental arrangements and groundbreaking production methods over the years. His early career with Roxy Music saw him pioneering as an on-stage synth-player, using his collection of primitive sound modulating hardware to meld and warp the sounds his bandmates were creating with their instruments.

Entering the 1980s, synthesised sounds became the norm of pop music as it became increasingly science-fiction-esque. In 1983, a 15-year-old Brian Cox took his younger sister to a Duran Duran concert. The young science geek found himself taken aback by the hoards of screaming youngsters in attendance. He had discovered the power of music. At this point, he recalled on BBC 2’s Desert Island Discs, that he decided that he wanted to be a musician. Throughout the 1990s, Cox achieved success as the keyboardist of the bands Dare and D:Ream and once even played on Top of the Pops. However, all along, his true passion, and first love, was physics 

During his music career, Cox studied a degree in physics and then later achieved a PhD following a departure from his music career. He has become a world-renowned physicist and TV presenter teaching us some of the most mind-boggling and cumbrous wonders of our universe in recent years. Brian Cox stands as one of the most prominent links between the wondrous worlds of science and music. But there have been plenty of other memorable meetings of music and science over the years that you should know about.

We bring you our pick of ten songs inspired by science.

10 songs inspired by science

‘She Blinded Me With Science’ – Thomas Dolby

This 1980s hit by Thomas Dolby was an instant classic that seemed to put its flag in the decade as one of the most ’80s sounding ’80s songs. The cheesy synth-driven rhythm is immersed in a menagerie of weird sound effects that would feel at home in a sci-fi cartoon.

The song tells the story of the narrator’s infatuation with his science teacher, Miss Sakamoto. Despite his physical attraction to the teacher, she fails him in biology and history before “blinding” him “with science”. Fans of the popular US TV drama Breaking Bad will recognise the track from the ringtone of Jesse Plemons’ character Todd Alquist. 

‘Space Oddity’ – David Bowie

David Bowie had a slow-burning rise to stardom throughout the 1960s compared to some of his contemporaries, but when he did finally break through, it was thanks to his hit 1969 single ‘Space Oddity’. The song was released with impeccable timing just nine days before the Apollo 11 moon landing.

‘Space Oddity’ follows the story of a fictitious astronaut, Major Tom, who takes a trip into space alone and reflects on the fragility of Earth while examining his feelings of isolation and anxiety. In 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield filmed himself singing ‘Space Oddity’ while floating around the International Space Station.

‘Natural Science’ – Rush

Canadian rock legends Rush released ‘Natural Science’ in 1980 on their album Permanent Waves. The epic 9-minute song is broken up into three sections, I. Tide Pools, II. Hyperspace, and III. Permanent Waves. In the first section, lyricist Neil Peart reveals the Earth at its very beginning where eventually, “All the busy little creatures chasing out their destinies/ Living in their pools, they soon forget about the sea.”

Later, Section II comes, “a quantum leap forward,” which presents itself as an examination of contemporary life, “a mechanised world, out of hand.” Finally, Section III looks to the future, warning of nature’s unforgiving power and ultimate will of destruction. The epic track is one of the most insightful scientific concepts we’ve encountered in rock history.

‘Cosmogony’ – Björk

Icelandic indie marvel Björk has often tinkered at the edges of science in some of her weird and wonderful music. Her lyrical style teems with metaphors for a broader theme at play. Her track ‘Cosmogony’ from her 2011 album Biophilia explores a variety of myths regarding the creation of the universe. 

She hints at divine creation with the mention of God and heaven, and then in the final verse, Björk takes a tongue-in-cheek jab at the Big Bang theory by naming it a creation myth itself. “And they say back then our universe/Wasn’t even there, until a sudden bang/ And then there was light, was sound, was matter/ And it all became the world we know”.

‘Why Does the Sun Shine’ – They Might Be Giants

The alt-rock group who brought us the well-known theme tune for the hit US TV show Malcolm in the Middle also brought us a song that asked one of science’s most elementary questions. ‘Why Does the Sun Shine’ appeared on Here Comes Science, one of the group’s Grammy Award-winning children’s albums. 

Performed in the group’s trademark pop-punk style, the group give a musical child-friendly lesson with informative lyrics like, “the sun is hot,” “the sun is large,” or “the sun is far away”. These basic facts are flanked by more advanced and informative verses like, “the sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma, a gigantic nuclear furnace, where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees”.

‘A Glorious Dawn’ – John D. Boswell with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking

You might have had a double-take situation beholding the lineup of this track. Indeed, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking weren’t known for their contributions to music, but once, filmmaker and composer John D. Boswell made the two nerds the Lennon and McCartney of the science department.

He auto-tuned voice samples from theoretical physicist Hawking and legendary astronomer Sagan for his video series Symphony of Science. For the first track of his project, Boswell (also known as melodysheep) used snippets from Sagan’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey series and Stephen Hawking’s Stephen Hawking’s Universe series to create a poetic and educational banger.

‘Astronomy Domine’ – Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd’s early music of the mid-1960s, led by psychedelic extraordinaire Syd Barrett, was known for its intergalactic sci-fi sound, which was accompanied during live performances with their famous budget light shows. Of all of their early hits, ‘Astronomy Domine’ from the 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was among the most outer-space influenced. 

While a case could be made for ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ from the same album, ‘Astronomy Domine’ win’s the science race thanks to its astronomical lyrics, for example: “around the icy waters underground. Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania. Neptune, Titan, Stars can frighten”. 

‘Sounds of Science’ – Beastie Boys

New York hip-hop group Beastie Boys never shied away from a bit of comedy in their lyrics, and a bit of education never went amiss either. Their unique style that melded rock, jazz, hip-hop and punk offered a suitable medium to communicate a strong message.

‘Sounds of Science’, from their classic 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, is a bouncy number with samples aplenty, which finds itself on this list thanks to its wealth of scientific imagery and satire of critical scientific discoveries. The song’s final line perfectly exemplifies my point: “Dropping science like when Galileo dropped his orange.”

‘E=MC2’ – Big Audio Dynamite

Lead guitarist and vocalist of The Clash, Mick Jones, formed Big Audio Dynamite in 1984 following his departure from the famous punk group. The group’s first big hit came in 1985 in the pacey form of ‘E=MC2’. The song takes its name from theoretical physicist and all-around brainbox Albert Einstein and his famous formula for mass-energy equivalence. 

The popular hit seems to marry rap with new-wave in a perfect fashion. Prominent dialogue samples were taken from the 1970 film Performance, which starred Mick Jagger. The lyrics contain a near-constant barrage of references to popular culture. For example: “Space guy fell from the sky” refers to The Man Who Fell to Earth starring David Bowie and “King of brains”, “Queen of the sack”, “Hall of fame baseball” and “Senator’s a hoodlum” refer to Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Joe McCarthy respectively who were all lead characters portrayed in the 1985 film Insignificance.

‘The Planets’ – Gustav Holst

Admittedly, this entry to the list isn’t strictly a song; it is a collection of seven movements of classical music. However, as one of the most admired and famous orchestral arrangements in British classical music, it would seem unfair to leave it untouched.

In the early 20th century, Holst became increasingly fascinated with theosophy and astrology. By the 1910s, he decided that he would work on a new set of compositions inspired by the planets of our solar system. Each movement is named after a planet in the solar system, from the vicious sounding ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ to the brazen ‘Jupiter, the bringer of Jollity’. The music was also influenced by the events of the time – ‘Mars’ was written shortly after the outbreak of World War I, hence its link to conflict and violence.