As the deep, rich drone of a didgeridoo continued to emanate
from a portable CD player, American composer Andrew Kaiser wrapped
up his argument for the role of music in interstellar communication.
Speaking at a recent workshop in Paris, Kaiser echoed the sentiments
of others at the meeting, stressing the fruitful interplay of art
and science in constructing interstellar messages.
The workshop was one of an ongoing series of international meetings
that brings together artists and scientists to discuss ways to
create messages that might some day be transmitted across interstellar
space, whether by radio signals or laser pulses. The meetings provide
advance preparation for one of the most critical decisions that
would face humankind if the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
(SETI) should some day succeed: should we reply, and if so, what
should we say?
In Kaiser's view, the structure of terrestrial music might
provide clues to creating interstellar messages that could be understood
by extraterrestrial intelligence. In the process, he suggests that
music may provide a means of communicating "something of our
consciousness that is essentially human, regardless of the civilization
from which it emerges."
Kaiser is building upon an ongoing discussion about whether music
would be understood by extraterrestrials. For example, astronomer
Sebastian von Hoerner argued that extraterrestrials could even
have music similar to Earth's - ;so similar that we shouldn't
be surprised to find them using the same musical scales that we
Indeed, ever since the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, we have
known that there is an innate connection between music and math.
Musical notes can be described in terms of precise frequencies,
and harmonic combinations of these notes occur when their respective
frequencies are in a precise ratio to one another. To the mathematician,
the result is a simple fraction. To the listener, it is a harmonic
While we cannot be sure that extraterrestrial beings will necessarily
have a sense of hearing, any of the civilizations we contact in
the course of a SETI detection will be savvy about some of the
building blocks of music nevertheless. Concepts of frequency, amplitude,
and duration are as basic to the construction of radio telescopes
as they are to the composition of a symphony. Even if ET is deaf,
the language of music might provide a means of access to terrestrial
aesthetic sensibilities, through the intermediary of shared science.
Kaiser stresses the importance of avoiding ethnocentric biases
when creating interstellar messages inspired by music. He notes
that those from a Western tradition can easily assume that the
conventions of classical music are equally applicable in non-Western
cultures. And in many cases, they are not. Though concepts of harmony
and melody are seen throughout the world, the forms they take may
be radically different. In designing interstellar messages based
on music, he contends, we should be careful in deciding which musical
concepts to emphasize.
According to Kaiser, music also has the potential to express something
that could give extraterrestrials insights into the human experience
of being embodied: "The very physicality of the shared human
condition lends itself to cyclic sonic concepts such as drone,
repetition, silence: we breath, our hearts beat, lungs pump and
eventually stop." If some day exchange messages with extraterrestrials
who are not flesh-and-blood, but silicon-based artificial intelligence,
it may just be that our music will provide them with some of their
most important insights into what it means to be human.
By Douglas Vakoch