Music: Sequencers

Nature, Keywords: Lunar phases, tides

Relevant Sciences: Astronomy

Human: Renewal


Intro question
How do you feel when you make mistakes, and how do you get over it?

Moon contemplates emotional rebirth and explores the connections between the cycles of lunar phases, their effect on tides and human biological rhythms – and these are used as an inspiration for musical structures.

The main musical idea in Moon is derived from the changing lunar phases which vary according to how the Sun, Moon and Earth are positioned relative to one another. The portion of the Moon we can see varies from the new Moon (when the Sun and Moon are on the same side of Earth and the illuminated face of the Moon can’t be seen) to full Moon (when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of Earth and the whole face is illuminated). The time between full Moons is roughly 29 days, from which we derive calendar months.

The Moon app highlights the effect of these cycles on other phenomena. The gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon, and the turning of the Earth, influences the rise and fall of the oceans: the Earth’s rotation relative to the Moon means that the Moon exerts more pull on the water on the side of the Earth facing the Moon than on the other side.

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Musicology – Sequencers

The musical theme of Moon is sequencers or patterns in music. The earliest sequencers were sound producing devices such as “music boxes” and “player pianos”. During the middle of the 20th century electronic devices such as analogue sequencers and step sequencers (drum machines for example) became popular. Today the term “sequencer” is often used to describe software, where the composer has full control and can record, edit and play back whatever music he/she wants. However, hardware sequencers still exist.

The obvious example of a sequencer is a drum machine where you program certain rhythmic patterns into the machine and then it delivers them. Modern sequencers can, of course, produce any type of music, and a variety of programs and apps are available to do so. An important note here is that when using a sequencer, the composer is in complete control, in contrast to generative music, which is dealt with in Virus.

Sequencers could maybe be called repeaters just to distinguish them from the word sequence in classical music theory that has nothing to do with music sequencers. Sequence in music theory is a word used for repeated motive, up to four times in the same voice in the same direction but either higher or lower.

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Moon musical analysis

The symbolism of the Moon as the realm of imagination, melancholy, and regeneration is expressed in the Moon song and app by musical patterns and visual images which wax and wane, and by lyrics about rebirth. The certain musical scale of Moon affects the emotional feel of the song, melancholia.

The relationship between lunar and tidal cycles and of musical material can be heard in the melodic contours – the way the tunes rise and fall in pitch. Melodic contour has often been used by composers to represent shapes and movements in the natural world: an analogy between pitch height and the spatial dimensions of height means that rising and falling contours can be heard as the rise and fall of real-world phenomena such as waves.

The Moon animation in the app makes this relationship more explicit by representing notes in terms of their pitch height.

The harp part comprises five different types of repeated material with distinct melodic contours and metres: the 17-note ascending figure and its ascending accompaniment on the words “as if the healthiest pastime”; and the static “strummed” figure in 8/8 and later 5/8 heard solo on its first appearance.

By presenting these in a variety of combinations Björk creates a kaleidoscope of shapes, and a structure for the song which loosely mirrors the changing phases of the Moon: the harp lines descend, ascend, cross over creating contrary motion, or are flat. The ordering of these combinations creates a texture that starts with a thin, empty sound, becomes fuller, then thins again.

The outro of the track highlights the close relationship between words, images and sound: the lyrics “the end all and the beginning all” coincide with a return of the same descending sequence that started the song.

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Instruments / arrangement

To convey ideas about cycles in the natural world through music Björk and studio engineer Damian Taylor used Max, a visual programming software for music, which allows the user to create “patches” (Max programs) made by connecting building blocks (smaller programmes) on a computer screen. For much of Biophilia these programmes were then controlled using a Lemur touch screen interface, first used on the Volta tour (Björk’s previous album) and in anticipation of the iPad.

To create Moon Björk used a computer game controller to switch between different material. This allowed her to change metre (time signature) in different song sections and to avoid conventional pop metres, which tend to use multiples of two and to use prime numbers instead for example the unusual metre of 17/8. She also used it to structure material in a way that captures the idea of the changing phases of the Moon.

“It was really fun to program the Max patches and the Lemurs (algorithms and touch screens) in a similar way to how the Moon waxes and wanes. Those kind of patterns are natural, and patterns we all know, but how do you put that into a song, especially electronic music that’s usually pretty rigid?” – Björk

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Natural science – Astronomy

Lunar phases (the eight phases of the Moon) and why the Moon’s appearance changes, depending on:

a) Where it is in orbit around the Earth.

b) How the light from the Sun lits up different parts of it; one half of the Moon is always illuminated by the Sun but we cannot always see that half. Sometimes we see both the sunlit portion and the shadowed portion.

Lunar eclipses happen when Earth’s shadow blocks the Sun’s light and solar eclipses occur when the new Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, blocking out the Sun’s rays and casting a shadow on parts of the Earth.

Tides are the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth.


Human aspect – cyclical nature of life, failure, success

Although there is no scientifically proven link, some people claim that there is a connection between lunar cycles and bodily rhythms: for example, the menstrual cycle lasts roughly a month, approximating the lunar cycle and multiples of the tidal cycle, and the words “menstruation”, “month” and “moon” share a common origin.

How to get over your mistakes and learn from them? Mistakes can be very valuable and create a learning path in your life. With each new Moon we complete a cycle and are offered renewal – to take risks, to connect with other people, to love to give.


Connections / pattern

The Moon app connects musical structure, human biorhythms, and cycles of the Moon and tides: a chain of musical pearls are played by water washing over them, pulled by the changing phases of the Moon. The app takes the Max/MSP program used to create the song and translates it into a sequencer that can be controlled through the image of the Moon, pearls and water.

Change the phase of the Moon and the tide changes, allowing water to spill over and “play” more or fewer of the pearls, each of which can be adjusted to play a different note from the pitch collection used in the song.

In this way musical structures represent rhythmic cycles in the natural world – a sonic embodiment of the idea of the Moon as symbol of renewal.

The way the song is organised and the way it is presented in the app shows how the sequences of music mirror and can be compared with sequences such as the lunar cycle and menstruation.

Furthermore, the animation in the Moon app shows the phases and relationships between the harp melodies, allowing us to find connections between musical and natural cycles.

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Multi-disciplinary teaching ideas


  • Listen to the song in a very quiet atmosphere, starting with a short meditation, with everyone closing their eyes, guiding attention to certain parts of the lyrics or music.
  • Go through the history of music sequencers, from music boxes to the software sequencers we have today. Explore the different lengths of sequences can be created with different devices.
  • Listen to pieces of music and try to identify the pattern (sequences) in them.
  • Make a group form a human sequencer, where each student has a note/sound, either to play or sing. Create a scheme with eight squares, where each square is a assigned a sound, and then students get squares assigned and play the piece as a loop (similar to a drum-machine).
  • Do a music exercise with tone boxes: divide the students into groups. Each student is dealt a tone box and then he the group creates a sequence. You can use the Cmaj9 as a scale, which is the one used in the Moon song. Explore what happens if students within the group change places or if you add rests (silences). Also explore different lengths of sequences, how does a 7/4 sequence feel compared to 4/4 sequence?
  • Use a drum-machine (sequencer) either a hardware device (if available) or software program (or app) to create a communal beat, where each student adds their sound in whichever order he/she wants, then as the beat builds up let the students listen out for if they can still listen to the sound (beat) they added.
  • Explore different musical scales and modes and how they can create certain moods, refer to the current temperament of the piano.
  • For those who want to go deeper into the subject try coding or programming your own music sequencer.


  • Lunar phases:
    • represent the movements of the Sun, the Moon and the Earth through movement of students’ bodies.
    • Look at lunar cycle calendars.
    • Moon phases activity: you need 1) a lamp (or flashlight) representing the Sun; 2) a white foam ball, placed on stick or pencil, representing the Moon; 3) your head, representing the Earth; 4) a dark room. Keep the Moon out with your arm stretched and hold it towards the lamp. Turning around, you can see how different parts of the Moon get lit up, i.e. the lunar phases.
  • Tides, that occur because the gravity of the Moon ‘pulls’ the Earth towards it, accelerating the seas towards the Moon. This causes the water to ‘bulge.’ The parts of the Earth where this bulging occurs, experience high tide.  Interestingly enough, high tides occur simultaneously on the opposite side of the Earth, i.e. the side that is facing away from the Moon, as the seas get ‘left behind’ due to centrifugal force. Other parts of the Earth get low tide, as the seas on those areas ‘stretch out’.
    • Tides activity: form a large circle, holding hands. Outside the circle, one person is the Moon and walks around the circle on the outside (i.e. along its circumference). Moving around the ring, this person draws a part of the ring to him-/herself, causing tides. At the same time, the opposite part of the circle bends out a little, representing what happens on the opposite side
    • Look at tide times and charts.
    • Watch time lapse videos of tides.

Math and biology:

  • Look into Fibonacci sequences in maths and in nature.

Biology & chemistry:

  • Cycles in nature: photosynthesis versus combustion processes; the hydrological cycle; food chains; the circulatory system


  • Tidal waves of people; the migration movements of people in our time, refugees.

Psychology/mental health/EQ:

  • Solutions for how to cope with and learn from disappointments and to help yourself and others
  • The Moon as symbol for renewal, in a positive and negative sense. The Moon dies and then comes back again. Think about mistakes on a personal level connecting to the opening question, as well as how and why people engage in dangerous activities  that are life threatening and seem to get something out of it.


  • An interesting question is to discuss the myth of the Moon’s influence over us, yet be careful not to instill any misconceptions, as such a link has not been proven to exist.
  • Take a look and discuss what the tarot card “the Moon” tells us, which is what inspired Björk when she wrote the song.


  • Make a necklace of pearls that acts like a sequencer, where the shapes or colours of the pearls represent notes or sounds, so the necklace is a piece of music and the piece is a necklace, an example of the multisensory aspect of Biophilia.
  • make volcanos with papier mache (using newspaper and masking tape, or chicken wire) for the shape
  • Create moons of foam/polystyrene balls, covered with aluminium foil and shadows (seas)  painted with ink.


Connection with other songapps

Moon and Solstice go well together. In addition, the musical themes in Virus and Moon have some common ground; it’s good to do Moon before Virus. The idea of the sequencer and generative music are modern concepts that can open up questions related to modern and contemporary art. Check out online poetry generators and similar ideas in other fields. Question the role of the artist, the idea of genius, etc.

Search words

Music sequencers, lunar phases, Moon phases activity, Moon phase calendar, tides, cyclical nature of life, failure and success, rebirth, cycles in the body, lunar eclipses, solar eclipses,  Fibonacci sequences, photosynthesis, hydrological cycle, food chains, circulatory system