Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
On September 5, 1977, NASA sent a probe to study the outer Solar System and continue on to interstellar space. Named Voyager 1, the sixteen hundred pound craft is now approximately twelve billion miles from Earth. An identical spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks before its interstellar twin, but Voyager 1 moved faster and eventually passed it. Both probes carry a golden phonograph record containing sounds and images meant to convey the diversity of terrestrial life and human culture. The hope is that, should intelligent extraterrestrials find one of these infinitesimal records in infinite space, they would be able to decipher its contents.
The record includes 116 images and an array of earthly sounds: greetings in fifty-five languages, volcanoes, a chimpanzee, a heartbeat, a train, Morse code, a wild dog, a mother and child, rain, and much more. It also has ninety minutes of music, ranging from a Pygmy girl’s initiation song to Indonesian gamelan music to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to the “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The possibility of an extraterrestrial species obtaining, playing, and comprehending the Golden Record is minuscule. Not only is it a tiny object moving in the vastness of space, but the sounds it includes are utterly earthbound. In striving to portray sundry soundscapes, the record reveals a certain, if subtle, unity: every sound on this planet bears the imprint of this planet. Such earthliness would surely fall on deaf alien ears (if they even have an auditory mechanism). The sounds we make or perceive have an evolutionary history unique to our orb.
In the decades since the Voyager space pods were set in motion, much has come to light about the natural origins of music. Bernie Krause’s groundbreaking work on non-human “musical” proclivities suggests, among other things, the millennia-spanning influence of geophony (Earth sounds) and biophony (non-human animal sounds) on anthrophony (human sounds). Other theories of music’s origins point to environmental imprints in one way or another. A rough amalgamation of these nuanced hypotheses shows music as a combination of the imitation of nature and the exploration of human capacities.
Added to this is mounting evidence of the interconnectedness of Earth’s living creatures. As Neil Shubin explains in his popular book, Your Inner Fish, the close examination of fossils, embryos, genes, and anatomical structures indicates that all animals, prehistoric and modern, are variations of the same blueprint—hence the fish within us all. (Shubin remarked in a lecture that he could have just as easily called the book, Your Inner Fly.) What this means musically is that creaturely sounds of all sorts emanate from the same extended biological family, and are thus shaped by variations of the same constraints. The reason why researchers have been able to explore musical vocabularies of songbirds and bugs, and their probable influence on early humans, is because, despite surface dissimilarities, animals are people too (or, more accurately, humans are animals).
The extraterrestrial species that happens upon the Golden Record will almost certainly be nothing like us. Life on Earth shares an anatomical makeup that could have only developed here; other habitable planets would have other ingredients. This is a major criticism of popular depictions of aliens, which, aside from The Blob (1958) and a few others, invariably appear as insects, reptiles, humanoids, or a combination of the three. Genes on another planet would give rise to species beyond our Earth-born imaginations. And our sounds—musical, linguistic, animal, or otherwise—would be unlike anything they’ve ever heard.
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