A Musical Guide to Stargazing

Spanish Courtyard at dusk

Astrology: A New Hobby

By Erin Harding, Special Events Assistant

As we all spend more time at home embracing the current circumstances, many of us have reignited our love for hobbies. If you’re anything like me, you’re itching to try something new. What’s better than the timeless activity of stargazing? I’ve recently connected with Lawrence Faltz, life-long classical music lover and amateur astronomer from Westchester Amateur Astronomers, to learn about what stars we can see at this time of year. Music and the stars go hand in hand in unforeseen ways. 


Many well-known constellations, including Lyra, Gemini, Delphinus, and Capricornus, have connections to music through the stories of Greek gods and goddesses.  

Lyra is the most notably connected to music and is representative of the lyre given to Orpheus (a Greek musician, poet, and prophet). Orpheus charmed people with his music, and upon his death, Zeus sent his lyre to live forever in the sky (Lyra Constellation, n.d.). The brightest star in Lyra is Vega, the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere. Vega is a part of the Summer Triangle, made of three bright stars that are overhead throughout the fall season. Not far from Lyra is the constellation Hercules, which can be recognized as a trapezoid. During the summer months, if you are in a dark area, Larry suggests that with binoculars you’ll be able to see “the great Hercules globular cluster,” a tight ball of several hundred thousand stars. At a distance of 22,000 light-years, the cluster is one of about 150 similar objects that form a sphere around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The stars in globular clusters are at least 10 billion years old.  

In one version of the Greek myth regarding the Delphinus constellation or “the dolphin,” Arion (a poet and musician) was saved after singing a song that brought dolphins to his rescue. After the dolphins saved Arion, Apollo (the god of poetry and music) commemorated them in the stars right next to Lyra (Delphinus Constellation). The Delphinus constellation rises at around 11:00pm early in June, but it will rise earlier and be located much higher in the sky as the summer progresses.  

Larry’s two hobbies also reveal to us that, “[t]here are lots of general references in opera to the sky or the heavens, as in ‘cielo’ or ‘ciel’ or ‘himmel’. There are even some references to specific celestial objects. For example, Ursa Major, a part of which many people know as the Big Dipper, appears in Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Grimes, the isolated and doomed fisherman sings: 

Now the Great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves

Are drawing up the clouds of human grief

Breathing solemnity in the deep night

Who can decipher

In storm or starlight

The written character

Of a friendly fate

As the sky turns, the world for us to change?

But if the horoscope’s bewildering

Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring

Who can turn skies back and begin again?”

Though not directly connected to music, the Big Dipper is often thought of in terms of navigation, and acts as a reminder that the stars can help point us in the right direction. “[The months of] May and June are a perfect time to see one of the most important and easily recognizable asterisms, the Big Dipper, because it’s high overhead in the evening. It’s actually an ‘asterism’ and not a ‘constellation’ because it is a recognizable pattern of stars but not a formally designated constellation itself, of which there are officially 88 in the sky. It’s always above the horizon as it circles the North Celestial Pole, the extension of the Earth’s polar axis into space . . . The second star in the Dipper’s handle is actually a pair of stars. Young people with good eyesight can easily see them as two distinct stars.”

He suggests for those that want a closer look at this very familiar set of stars: “If you can get to a darker site away from city lights, using binoculars (10×50 binoculars are generally best for stargazing) you should be able to see two galaxies in Ursa Major, Messier 81 and 82 . . . found by extending a line diagonally across the bowl of the Dipper twice its span. Binoculars will show faint fuzzy patches. The larger M81 is 12 million light years away, so the light you see started out long before any primates walked upright on the Earth. Smaller M82 is sometimes called the ‘Cigar Galaxy’ because of its elongated shape.”

After the sun sets tonight, go out and gaze upon the stars and see if you can spot the Big Dipper, Messier 81 and 82, or the great Hercules globular cluster and its musical constellations. While you’re looking, set the mood by listening to a selection from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, and be reassured that we will be sharing music under the stars soon.


*Dr. Faltz is former president of Westchester Amateur Astronomers and is editor of its monthly newsletter SkyWAAtch. Please visit www.westchesterastronomers.org for more information. 

Delphinus Constellation. (n.d.). Constellation Guide. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from https://www.constellation-guide.com/constellation-list/delphinus-constellation/ 

Lyra Constellation. (n.d.). Constellation Guide. Retrieved on May 19, 2020 from https://www.constellation-guide.com/constellation-list/lyra-constellation/ 

Comments

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Kate Glynn  / 

    Thank you for this very interesting guide. Unfortunately I could not read any names on the star map. But I will look for the big dipper tonight …