What Kind of Music Would Extraterrestrials Listen To

From ???@??? Tue Feb 1 14:33:58 2000
Date: 01 Feb 2000 14:33:58 EST
From: Larry Polansky
Subject: Re: journalist's request
To: strangetrue@ameritech.net
Cc: Julia L. Driver, Larry Polansky, Douglas I. Repetto, robertsm@mhd1.moorhead.msus.edu

Q.  If extraterrestrial aliens sent us a rocketload of
CDs, what kinds of music might we be treated to?

A.  (We're serious--looking at the universals of music
and aesthetics.  What is music?  What media might work other
than sound for intelligent beings anywhere?  How do emotions
and a sense of time factor in?  What about organismic speed
of information processing?  Etc.  We think our readers would
love speculations of this sort.  Thank you very much.--Bill

--- end of quote ---


If extraterrestrials share any notion of language with us, or even the concept of language, it is likely (though not certain) that they will have some notion of exploring linguistic ambiguity as well. If they have something called "senses" or "perception" (which they must, in order for them to know we exist, but again, they may be unrecognizably configured), they will probably have some way of exploring the ambiguities between language and senses. That may be the closest we can come to assuming some notion of music.

Varese's definition of music (organized sound) may be useful in this situation, except that sound is such an imprecise word, and not only doesn't transfer well extra-terrestially, it doesn't even do well inter-specially. Though it's clear to us that cognitively, frinstance, dogs and us do more or less the same kinds of things with compression/rarefaction of a medium (sound, and then the ear), it's really unclear that the two species have anywhere near the same relationship to that physical phenomena's functionality. That is, we both hear, and we both hear in the same ways more or less, but what happens later is either so basic (we both jump at loud sounds) or way too divergent (dogs don't boogie when the Beastie Boys come on). EBEs are going to be (we hope, and that's where the fun is) far more complicated.

Even given that "they" have "ears" and respond to "soundwaves" in some way (a pretty big assumption), things that we consider to be close to humanly universal in music (perceptions of ratiometric equivalence, recognition of onset time, spectral flux, and spectral centroid as timbral identification and similarity cues, speech related sonic taxonomy, simple divisions of metric units, and even more fundamental, gestalt grouping mechanisms; see Tenney) may or may not be working. We should probably start with the simplest thing we can find (sine waves, impulses, distance cues?, white noise, low integer ratio superposition of events (2 against 1, etc.). Maybe next move to simple, integer frequency multiples, but who knows? Frequency may not translate into pitch for them (it doesn't always for us either!), they may hear a sharp attack and say "Man that's a high gxlfrb!."

The Voyager-record people thought a lot about this (so did I, I wrote an article with Stephanie Nelson about the music on that record: "The Music of the Voyager Interstellar Record", Journal of Applied Communication Research, 1993). One of the things that hangs us up is that we THINK we know what music is, but we actually have no clue. We also think we know something about universal (that is, human) perceptions of sound, but our findings are so far so restricted and highly qualified that we really know very little. We DO know a lot about what people have learned to hear (Madonna!), but we're not really sure why it's exactly those things that they've learned.

My advice, upon meeting the Greens (we of course need to watch out for the Grays), is: start from scratch. Instead of trying to teach them, my philosophy would be the same as that of my life. I like to use the hebrew imperimative "sh'ma" which is often translated as "Listen!", but maybe better as "Pay attention". So if they land (or apparate, or xyxgrbl), my advice would be simply: shut up and heads up.

larry polansky