A theremin, an instrument heard extensively in sci-fi films
A theremin, an instrument heard extensively in sci-fi films

Looney tunes: the moon in music

  • Composers across time and genre have been inspired by it, but there’s no one kind of moon song in the Western music canon
  • The malleability of the moon as a symbol has allowed its use in a variety of genres and moods

If you want to write a song about the heart/ Think about the moon before you start," Paul Simon advised in Song About The Moon. It’s not just the heart, though—the malleability of the moon as a symbol allows its use in an impressively wide range of songs. Musicians working in everything from country to ska to post-rock have linked the moon to loneliness, romance, madness, vampires, werewolves. It’s a quiet observer in Elvis Presley’s ethereal Sun Studio recording of Blue Moon (“You saw me standing alone"), a confidant in Sting’s Sister Moon (“I’d go out of my mind, but for you"). It’s a bad combination with all the rum Chuck Berry is drinking in Havana Moon. It can be a portent of bad times (Bad Moon Rising) or a marker of good times (Dancing In The Moonlight).

Two famous pieces with “moonlight" in their title began life as something else. Claude Debussy’s Clair De Lune—French for “light of the moon", from a poem by Paul Verlaine—was originally called Promenade Sentimentale. But perhaps Debussy recognized that the crystalline notes suggested a lunar light, because he changed the name before the suite’s publication in 1905. To complicate matters, there’s another Clair De Lune, composed in 1887 by another Frenchman, Gabriel Fauré, which also takes its title from the Verlaine poem—though this is a vocal piece, while Debussy’s is for piano.

The actual title of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—one of the most famous pieces in Western classical music—is Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia. It was only five years after his death that the nocturnal mood of the minor key beginning moved poet Ludwig Rellstab to describe it as “a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne". The name stuck.

Jazz is a nocturnal genre, and more than a few moon-related tracks appear in the canon. Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade is a classic swing ballad. How High The Moon was a Broadway duet before Ella Fitzgerald made the song hers in a bebop-inflected 1947 session. Harold Arlen’s It’s Only A Paper Moon also started as a Broadway tune, but over the years was passed from one jazz legend to another, two highlights being Fitzgerald’s vocal version and Coleman Hawkins’ instrumental.

Years later, Peter Bogdanovich thought of calling his 1973 film “Paper Moon" after the song. He rang up Orson Welles for advice. The older director responded: “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title."

Moon music can also be challenging, cutting-edge. From as early as the fourth century till fairly recently, the word “lunatic" stood in for all kinds of mental illnesses. The word has its origins in the belief that the moon has the power to make people lose their minds—the Latin lunaticus is “moonstruck". No musician captured this idea better than the German Arnold Schoenberg, whose Pierrot Lunaire (Pierrot Of The Moon) was a scandal when it was debuted in 1912 and is startling to hear even today. This is a German translation of French poems set to music by Schoenberg—though it may not be like any music you have heard. Voices soar and dive, never settling on any distinguishable melody. Instruments saw away at the edges, as if part of a whole different conversation. The effect is bracingly atonal—mondestrunken, moon-drunk. Unsurprisingly, Icelandic avant-pop singer Björk has covered Pierrot Lunaire in concert.

The album cover of Inauthentica’s recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’
The album cover of Inauthentica’s recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’


The moon landing spawned its own musical legacy. In 1947, bandleader Les Baxter recorded Music Out Of The Moon, an album notable for combining an orchestra with the keening wail of a theremin, an electronic instrument which soon became synonymous with sci-fi cinema. This obscure record fulfilled its destiny, as it were, when Neil Armstrong took it along on cassette on the Apollo 11 mission and played it in space. Stepping out on the lunar surface after Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin played Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon—making it the first piece of music played on the moon.

Back on Earth, not everyone was excited about the space race. African-American poet and proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron released, in 1970, the protest song Whitey On The Moon (No hot water, no toilets, no lights/ But whitey’s on the moon). Decades later, R.E.M. weaved conspiracy theories surrounding the lunar landing into one of their most resonant compositions, Man On The Moon.

Promotional artwork for R.E.M.’s ‘Man On The Moon’
Promotional artwork for R.E.M.’s ‘Man On The Moon’


Both Music Out Of The Moon’s Lunar Rhapsody and Whitey’s On The Moon feature in First Man, the 2018 Damien Chazelle film about Armstrong and Apollo 11 mission. The film’s score is composed by Justin Hurwitz, who—like Baxter—combines traditional instruments with a theremin (“We’re used to hearing a theremin in sci-fi movies and sort of B movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s," Hurwitz said in an interview. “What if we used it in a really expressive melodic way?"). The scene in which Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, walks on the moon is accompanied by an unforgettable shimmering score, the thrum of the strings suggesting the thrill of discovery, the theremin shading in a bit of mystery.

This is a far cry from the other famous movie moment with astronauts on the lunar surface: the “monolith" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stanley Kubrick scored this with the terrifying choral buzzing of György Ligeti’s Requiem. Those with faint hearts can seek comfort in Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, used for the moon landing scene in the same film. There’s no one kind of moon song.

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