In the summer of 2012, eleven thousand, million miles from Earth, a golden disk crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space. On this disk are detailed measurements of localized fluctuations of ambient air pressure on Earth over several minutes, fluctuations that could be reproduced by placing a stylus (included) perpendicular to the disk (as illustrated by the instructions engraved on the back of the disk) and letting the mechanical vibrations of the stylus propagate through an appropriate gaseous or liquid medium.
Should a creature far from Earth find this disk and follow these engraved instructions, what would it make of the resulting perturbations in its atmosphere? No matter the creature’s origins, it’s reasonable to expect that it would have evolved some sensitivity to vibrations in the medium that surrounds it. Just about every animal on Earth has. But would this creature detect a structure in these vibrations? Would it tease out statistical anomalies in the frequencies represented? Would it notice that these frequencies change at regular intervals in time and that certain combinations and sequences of frequencies tended to reoccur? Would it start to anticipate these patterns, becoming surprised, frustrated, or even delighted when the patterns defied these expectations? Would this realization and confounding of expectations cause some sort of change in the being’s moment by moment existence, its internal state of being? In simpler terms, would this creature be moved by the sound of music?
The creators of this disk hoped so. When NASA attached their literally, if not figuratively, gold record to the Voyager space crafts 37 years ago, it was a Hail Mary pass in the general direction of a potentially non-existent end zone. The track list is hopelessly idiosyncratic, a quirky mix tape of sounds one might encounter on Earth. It is hard to imagine an alien taking anything from the contextless sounds of an automobile starting, a howling wind, or the chattering of a chimpanzee. And the intentions behind the 55 greetings to the universe in 55 different languages is at times barely comprehensible to humans, much less a being that may not have found use for an acoustic language. The contribution from an Amoy speaker: ‘‘Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.’’ Should they bring dessert?
Clearly NASA’s stab at Now That’s What I Call Earth (vol. 1) is aimed as much towards Earthly hearts and minds as towards the corresponding organs of an alien life form. While these clips give a homey sense of us as a species, there’s simply not much there that has any sort of universality in a cosmic sense. But music… music is a different beast all together. It’s pure abstraction, an intellectual creation of proportion, structure, and balance, sound that isn’t merely an artifact of a physical world, but sound for sound’s sake – if anything on that record could have any hope of universality, it would be the music.
From a purely analytic stance, music stands out as something quite distinct from natural phenomena. The frequency content shows an emphasis on integer multiples of fundamental tones (the overtone series) as opposed to a blurring across all frequencies. This corresponds to our sense of pitch. Individual events (‘‘notes’’) tend to happen at regular intervals in time. This corresponds to our sense of rhythm. The fact that a computer can be programmed to break down an audio signal into the corresponding pitches and rhythms shows that no particular sensory perception is required to detect the building blocks of music. One could make a convincing case that even when stripped down to these basic units of pitch and rhythm, the great works of Bach are so structured, so filled with correlated information, they would be understood by any being capable of processing information. But would they be enjoyed? Would they communicate something?
For the past century ethnomusicologists have been trying to gauge the universality of music comprehension within our own species. A recent study has shown that members of the remote Mafa tribe, a group isolated from musical traditions other than their own, were able to reliably identify three basic emotions (joy, sadness, fear) in Western music, a victory for those who believe that meaning in music transcends culture. Music appreciation may transcend species as well. Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, has been seen rocking out to the Back Street Boys all over YouTube, and bird songs are made up of the same scales and modes as human songs. Surely that bodes well for an ailing music industry looking to expand their market beyond Earth.
The question of an alien fan base for our music comes down to the sound of their own voices. A great deal of human biology has evolved around verbal communication and a great deal of musical thought has evolved around the human voice. Clearly linguistic and musical communication are linked. Research shows that amongst terrestrial species, the parts of the brain that allow vocal learning abilities (such as those exhibited by Snowball) are the same parts that allow a creature to perceive (and rock out to) a rhythmic beat. An alien language would be born of the physics of the environment in which they evolved and the social dynamics between the creatures they communicated with, which in turn would produce the cognitive and emotional states that would make up its consciousness. As this language developed, so would the music.
We are left with ifs. If a species has developed an acoustic language, if that language has syntactic similarities to our own, if their social structures have led to a consciousness and emotional states compatible with ours, then they likely have developed communicative music of their own and might find some aesthetic value in this unsolicited first selection from the NASA Record and Tape Club. It hasn’t been returned yet, but there haven’t been any follow up orders either.
Brian M. Rosen is a San Francisco based composer, actor, opera singer, writer, and computer scientist. He has worked at Pixar Animation Studios since 1993, helping in the creation of each film since Toy Story. For more information, visit his web site, musicvstheater.com