Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Science Fiction and Music

What would aliens think of our music?

It's not such a banal question. Voyager, one of the first deep space probes sent out to contact other sentient life, contained (amongst other things) classical and popular music, to show what our culture is like.

Music is endemic to humanity. All cultures and sub-cultures have music. If we were to discover an unknown tribe in the Amazon rainforest tomorrow who had never had contact with the rest of the world, without doubt they would have language, painting of some sort, weapons, and music.

Music is also a form of mathematical expression, as much as it is a way of conveying emotion. It is a language of sorts, trying to communicate joy, sorrow, or just "get up off your ass and dance!". Think of whalesong or birdsong - it is not just there for our pleasure, it may mean "follow me", or "keep out of my territory", or "anyone fancy mating?"

All music follows a mathematical form (scales), some more complex than others (e.g. Indian classical music works on a different scale - if you're not used to it, you really don't hear the nuances). Jazz follows rules as does classical music, but is more flexible, allowing musicians to 'bend' those rules more. Because it is mathematical, it is a sign of intelligence, and alien species might be impressed by it (or not), and might even find it culturally more 'telling' about humanity's nature and 'social desirability' on a galactic scale than scientific logic or technological advances.

One drawback is that our music is all confined to a narrow band on the electromagnetic spectrum; even dogs can hear more than we can. We live in air of a particular density, whereas other alien life might live in water, gas, or communicate by light more than sound (David Brin's classic Sundiver science fiction series had intelligent plant-life-forms which preferred communication by light).

Would aliens like our music, or understand it? Most science fiction ignores this part of our heritage, saving it for compelling film anthems or TV SF soap theme tunes (Star Wars, Star Trek), or for incidental 'tekky' musical scores (e.g Vangelis' fab score for Blade Runner - including my all-time favourite SF 'track', Memories of green). Occasionally SF deals with music, but it usually portrays it as very different and cacophonous to our ears and tastes (a good example being the futuristic choral piece near the end of the film Planet of the Apes - although not alien as such). In contrast, Luc Besson's cult film Fifth Element contained a piece of 'space opera', a multi-limbed alien singing a rather compelling operatic number.

One optimistic example is provided in an episode of Star Trek Voyager, wherein an alien culture finds Earth-music fascinating, though only for a while. Nevertheless, this is the outlook I chose for my second novel (Eden's Trial, due end of 2011), in a glancing reference that if humans need to trade, they should consider music, because it is valued in the galaxy, being so different and creative. I can attest to this, having in the past week been lucky enough to see Pink Floyd's (Roger Waters) The Wall, two outstanding classical/jazz guitarists (John Williams and John Etheridge) and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Whatever else humanity does, it rocks.

Maybe one day we'll intercept a probe from another species. Maybe as well as other information, there would be music. Now wouldn't that be interesting to hear?

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