Essay | Science Fiction & the Synthesized Sound

When the alien ships descend on Wyoming, in the climactic scene of Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the usual trappings of invasion are conspicuously absent. There are no laser guns, no pronouncements of interstellar warfare. The aliens don’t unravel some cosmic decree, claiming the Earth. Instead, they make first contact with a melody—one which, with the help of an Arp 2500 synthesizer, the human welcoming committee sings right back.

Like mathematics, music is often considered to be a “universal language.” This has some basis in science: the human brain hums with complex rhythms created by the pulse of synapses as they convey signals from neuron to neuron. We are just beginning to learn that these rhythmic oscillations have a hand in all manner of cognitive functions—information transfer, perception, motor control, memory. And music affects the limbic system, a relatively ancient part of the human brain, one that we share with much of the animal kingdom.

But what of life beyond Earth? Might music be capable of bridging the far wider gap between human and extraterrestrial intelligence? We’ve exploited this belief in fiction and reality alike; Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s tonal hello is an example, as is NASA’s Voyager Golden Record, a mixtape of musical greetings from Earth, from Chuck Berry to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, tacked onto the two Voyager probes, launched in 1977 and now the farthest man-made objects from Earth: 19,024,807,778 kilometers away as of this writing. Of course, it’s likely aliens would take the Voyager Golden Record for a piece of space garbage. Carl Sagan himself called it a “symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life.”

He was right. The idea that music might be a tool for communicating with aliens is predicated on too many false assumptions. One, the assumption that an extraterrestrial race might have evolved along the same lines as us, with a built-in apparatus for translating frequencies into meaning. Like any speculation we make about the physiognomy of extraterrestrials, it’s flimsy. We have no evidence to prove that parallel evolution on an interstellar scale is possible, save the diversity of ears and eyeballs on Earth.

But even on our own planet, living beings experience sound in a staggering diversity of ways. Not all life wanders down the same path: elephants hear with their giant ears, but reptiles sense vibration through the ground with their bellies. Dolphins hear through an external “ear drum” on either side of their head, and whales call to each other across the reaches of the sea with complex moans and clicks—incidentally, the Voyager Golden Record carried whale songs into outer space—while bats echolocate in the blind.

If extraterrestrials do, by some stroke of luck, recognize sound, we are still left with the problem of aesthetics and meaning. Would our human music, with its impossibly wide range of tonal variations, be pleasing to the alien ear? Would it contain any useful information? Just as dolphin clicks are inscrutable to us, might the cantatas of Bach reverberate as an offensive screech to the aesthetic palate of another, far more foreign, intelligence? On the other hand, it’s possible that a technologically advanced extraterrestrial race, having little to learn from us about technology, physics, or mathematics, might find our music interesting—and meaningful—because of its singularly human qualities.

If aliens are interested in us, they have plenty of source material. We’ve been weeping radio waves into space since the dawn of the modern age, and this garble could tell an intelligent race far more than we realize, just as a perusal of one’s own unedited search history often reveals a very clear form of one’s personhood, fears, and desires—to say nothing of the limits of one’s intelligence. The result isn’t necessarily flattering. In Carl Sagan’s 1985 science-fiction novel Contact, aliens from the Vega star system make contact by bouncing back to Earth the first television signal strong enough to escape our planet’s ionosphere: Adolf Hitler’s speech, opening the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Even an intentional message, like the Golden Record, might travel though the universe for millennia. We may not be around by the time our musical messages, radio transmissions, and other aural emissions reach their intended audience. On the rare chance that we haven’t destroyed our planet and ourselves along with it, we will definitely have made evolutionary leaps in the composition of music. Consider, after all, the difference between Incan pan flutes and Einstürzende Neubauten; that’s only a thousand years of relatively eventless human history. Which leads us to the final problem: is it possible to future-proof music? To create something timeless, not only for a handful of generations, but for the entire spread of the human race?

The simple answer to this question is no.

But since we’re engaged here in a thought experiment, let’s consider the idea. What does eternal music sound like? It can’t contain language, of course because language changes quickly from moment to moment, from generation to generation, from place to place. It cannot be composed in a specific scale. Can it even be beautiful, or is beauty something too closely wired to our neurochemistry, to the resonances and tones that soothe our brains and summon stored, subjective, emotional memories to awareness?

If I had to guess, I’d say the only way to even come close to future-proofing music would be to create single tones, generated precisely by machines. “Eternal” music might just be a representation of the fact that we have the apparatus to sense, and the intelligence to recreate, discrete slices of the resonant spectrum. At this point, the only thing which separates music from pure mathematics or physics is the organ used for intake: through ears rather than eyes, with the mind as intended recipient.

It’s perhaps for this reason that electronic music has always been so strongly associated with science fiction. That so many science fiction soundtracks—from Forbidden Planet, the first ever entirely electronic film score, to Wendy Carlos’ switched-on Baroque synth in A Clockwork Orange—have been dominated by synthesized tones. That Steven Spielberg, when making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would compose an alien greeting in the timbre of soft sine-waves. Can you imagine extraterrestrial visitors strolling down the ramp from their flying saucer strumming a slack guitar? Not in the science fiction that we make, because “analogue” instruments, in their perpetual journey towards entropy, are too likely to generate tones which shade into one another, and morph over time. They are not precise.

The music of the future will be electronic. Not because synthesizers and computers are futuristic, or have a more one-to-one relationship with sound, although that may be true, but because the “ears” of the future will most likely not be human. We have so far ignored the other non-human minds with whom we need to communicate—not those belonging to aliens, but to the machine intelligences we create.

There are many who believe in a Technological Singularity: that artificial intelligence will soon lap our own, breaking open the barriers of biological limitation. Regardless of whether or not we’ve all signed off on the idea, very intelligent people, working for corporations, governments, research laboratories and armies are actively developing for this future. It’s inevitable; we need cheaper, faster, smaller brains than our own to run this world. In our lifetimes, we will see the blossoming of new artificial intelligences, whose drives will quickly leapfrog beyond their original programming. It’s even possible they will develop self-awareness, or a process indistinguishable from self-awareness.

Might they not, too, be interested in music? After all, they will have unfettered access to the cultural products of the human world, and they will share DNA—the same hardware, languages, and algorithms—with electronic music. They will have networked relationships with devices and systems capable of generating sound. This is moonshot speculation, of course, but if music is a form of communication, and is indeed universal, then machines might become involved in its composition and appreciation. If so, they won’t be listening to Incan pan flutes—or Bach, Chuck Berry, or Einstürzende Neubauten. They will likely create a sound different from anything we have ever heard.

The 19th-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft only published one proper science fiction story, “The Colour out of Space,” in 1927. It concerns a backwater New England town suddenly hit by a meteorite, which displays unusual properties and emits a color unlike any seen on Earth. In fact, it’s only by analogy that anyone can even describe it as a color at all. It drives everyone who looks at it mad. The color is “a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.” In the end, it lays waste to the countryside and shoots back into the sky, unknown and unknowable.

The music composed by extra,- or artificial-, intelligences might have a similar quality. It might disrupt the delicate electro-chemical rhythms of the human brain. As a messenger of meaning too unfamiliar to understand, it might be strident, seemingly random, mathematical; we might only be able to decipher it, like Lovecraft’s color, by analogy. And although the need for such analogies is distant yet, it might serve us well to start thinking about them now. In the end, music might well be a universal language—but if we’re too proud to learn its new dialects, we’ll find ourselves alone and friendless in a foreign future.