On August 21, a 70-mile-wide, 2,500-mile-long swath of the United States will experience one of nature's most amazing events: a total eclipse of the sun. If you're one of the lucky people who will find themselves within the path of totality on that day, get ready! You'll be able to witness the incredible spectacle of day-turning-to-night as the moon completely covers the face of the sun, and the shadow of the moon falls onto you.
A total solar eclipse like this is the type of event that many people want to share with others, so many homes and campgrounds within the path of totality will be hosting eclipse-viewing parties. All of the continental United States will observe at least a partial eclipse. This begs the question: what music will you play during the eclipse?
There are many classical pieces inspired by the heavenly bodies involved in the eclipse, so here are a few ideas to get you started!
Music about the Moon
Since the eclipse is caused by the moon blocking the sun, some lunar-inspired music is definitely in order. A few jumping-off points could include Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which makes excellent "quiet" piece for settling down to watch the eclipse or as general background music. Another option is Debussy's Claire de Lune — a fine choice for the calm and quiet moments of partiality leading up to the big moment. Depending on your location, expect about an hour and a half of partiality before the moon completely covers the sun; this can be a great time to keep the music going.
Music about the planets
The eclipse will cause the sky to darken so much that four planets (and some stars) will be visible during totality: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. Why not consider adding a few portions of Holst's The Planets to your playlist? Jupiter, in particular, features a dramatic (though uplifting) sound that seems quite suited to the occasion. And remember, the planet Earth itself is a player in the eclipse, so music inspired by our own planet (Beethoven's Pastoral symphony?) fits right into the theme, too!
Music about the Sun
Finally, don't forget to add sun-inspired music to your soundtrack! Haydn's String Quartets Op. 20 (Sun) is a happy, enjoyable option. And one piece that also seems perfectly ideal for the grandeur and spectacle of a total eclipse is Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. The opening moments of this piece — titled "Sunrise" — feature fanfare, excitement, and power that is appropriate for the grand event. Throw in this music's connection to a couple of famous space movies, and you have a recipe for eclipse viewing success. (Should you go so far as to play this piece during totality? Hmm, keep reading...)
Now...what about the moment of totality itself? This is the climax of the eclipse, but it will only last — at most — two minutes and forty seconds (the exact duration depends on your location, but expect to get at least two minutes). This begs the question: should you continue to play your eclipse soundtrack during this time for added drama, or should you shut down the music and witness nature on its own terms?
No one can answer that for you specifically, but I am aware of several experienced "eclipse chasers" who suggest silence for the event — some even discouraging the use of a camera or anything that will distract from the very few minutes of amazement. But of course, the final decision is up to you. Enjoy this brief and rare moment!
(One note of caution: viewing a solar eclipse can be dangerous to your eyes if proper precautions and equipment are not used. Be sure to carefully research eclipse-viewing safety beforehand.)
Daniel Johnson is a Wisconsin-based photographer and writer, and the author of several nonfiction titles. You can see his photography work (he does a lot of rural life!) at foxhillphoto.com. Dan is amateur astronomer and hopefully plans to be able to observe a partial solar eclipse if the clouds stay away.