Is music universal?

Dear Cecil: Scientifically speaking, is music universal? If some advanced extraterrestrial came to earth, would he recognize our music? Jim B., via the Straight Dope Message Board


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Is music universal? Well, that’s a bet being made by the group Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Not content to simply scan the skies for signs of life, the METI folks want to go ahead and say howdy, which they’re attempting to do via a transmission station in Norway, beaming a binary-coded message at one potentially life-friendly exoplanet 12 light-years away. The content of their message? Melodies, created in collaboration with an artsy Barcelona music festival — lest you thought we’d subject our pen pals to, say, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

For the moment, let’s put the more, uh, universal sense of “universal” on hold and start a little closer to home. Leaving aside all the pop-sci baloney about music being a “universal language” — a phrase specially calibrated to drive both musicologists and linguists nuts — we can say nonetheless that music is universal here on earth: virtually all cultures produce it in some form. We’ve been at it a long time, creating tunes for at least 50,000 years — possibly as long as 250,000, if you count our a cappella period.

This long-term commitment has led some scientists to suggest that the tendency to make music must have had some role to play natural-selection-wise. But what? The list of theories is longer than Wagner’s Ring Cycle: music could have been a “proto-language,” a mode of human communication before formal languages developed; music might facilitate social cohesion, like grooming does for other primates; music might soothe cognitive dissonance in our brains and help us perform complex tasks; and so on.

Not exactly settled science, but let’s accept for the sake of discussion that our taste for music is an evolutionary adaptation. Is there any reason to think our friends from the exoplanet GJ 273b — the target audience for the METI transmission — would’ve evolved similarly? I’ll point you toward an intriguing recent paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology, where a few scientists argue that if advanced extraterrestrials have also undergone a process of natural selection (and there’s no reason to think otherwise), they might resemble us in some fundamental biological ways, and to a degree that might surprise us.

But can they boogie? I regret to inform you this paper didn’t go so far as to venture a guess, Jim. It’s not too hard, though, to make the case it shouldn’t matter either way.

Besides the musical passages, the METI message contains a primer on earth math and physics — from basic arithmetic and geometry up through trig, which gets you to the sine function and ultimately to the wave forms that convey audible sound, as well as a clock function meant to get across the idea of measuring time in seconds. The plan is to provide a conceptual toolkit for budding music lovers on other planets: everything they’d need, ideally, to look at the other data and have a shot at figuring out it’s supposed to represent notes at various pitches over varying lengths of time.

Even if the aliens can’t hear the music in the sense that we understand hearing, they’ll be able to perceive the patterns formed by its constituent data, and, with any luck, grok it anyway. The mathematical orderliness of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, you’d think, might have a beauty that transcends mere audibility. And who knows? Maybe the receiving civilization will have some souped-up hi-fi equipment that transposes our sound waves into a spectrum more locally popular — light, say.

Just the same, they may not see what the big deal is. In a 2001 paper, the musicologist David Huron asks us, in the service of explaining various evolutionary theories of music, to engage in a little thought experiment. Imagine you’re an alien scientist visiting earth, Huron writes. A lot of what you see makes sense to you on a behavioral level: eating, sleeping, etc. But you’d also see us creating music, listening to it, incorporating it into our religious ceremonies and mating rituals — and all this you might find yourself baffled by. “Even if Martian anthropologists had ears, I suspect they would be stumped by music,” Huron concludes.

His point is that music as we understand it may be a uniquely human behavior — graspable by extraterrestrial listeners, sure, but they might find our devotion curious. To be fair, this wouldn’t put them too far behind earth anthropologists; as discussed earlier, we’re still puzzling it out ourselves.

From METI’s perspective, this isn’t a bug but a feature: any alien civilization we contact, the thinking goes, is likely to be much more advanced than we are, so bragging about our scientific achievements is probably pointless — they’re there already, whereas music and other earthly arts might be sui generis enough to pique their interest. To me, though, this argues for sending the very best stuff we’ve got. No offense to the composers in Barcelona, but if we’re trying to turn extraterrestrial heads here, why screw around? Play ’em some Stevie Wonder already.

Cecil Adams

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