Feb 25, 2010 I Micah Hanks

Soundscapes in Deep Space: Music as Language?

Music has long been considered a sort of "universal language," capable of conveying feeling and emotion within compositions that surpass barriers presented by verbal communication and culture. From the primitive tribal drumming used in rituals by indigenous groups for thousands of years, to the advanced electro-neural trances created by techno beats in clubs on Saturday nights around the world, the vast and various ways our bodies are affected by music and sound still present many mysteries.

In fact, some research indicates that our brains are actually more open to unique influence from auditory stimulation than we realize. According to studies conducted by Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, Illinois, when we hear a sound the responding brain waves that manifest are physically identical to the sound wave being perceived. Conversely, if a recorded brain wave is then taken and fed through a digital playback device, the sounds they produce are also nearly identical.

Other studies Kraus has conducted, detailed recently in National Geographic, have found that people who play musical instruments are even able to discern specific sounds amidst background noise better than non-musicians, such as tuning out other voices in a room to focus on a conversation with one individual. Kraus believes this may point to ways the human brain's capacities for sound recognition, music and communication overlap. However, what if there were broader implications between music and communication--perhaps which involved contact with extraterrestrials?

If indeed we were ever to meet space aliens, it is the belief of many linguists and Xenologists alike that something along the lines of mathematics would be the best candidate for conversing universally with brothers from deep-space. Still, one has to wonder whether aliens, much like humans, would have emotional capacities similar to ours. Could music be used to express a sense of peace, tranquility, and well-being to alien visitors (based on the assumption they would have auditory organs like ours)?

We see it in films from time to time; take for instance the bizarre cult-classic Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), in which the slightly dim-witted heroes race throughout time, space, and even the afterlife to stop a villain from the future, Chuck De Nomolos, from traveling back in time and preventing Bill and Ted from winning a battle of the bands competition. The point here, especially with regard to this rather obscure reference to an altogether ridiculous (but entertaining) film, is that the characters became the object of De Nomolos'  evil influence because the music they would eventually record with their band, Wyld Stallyns, manages to unite humankind (and beyond) with its positive grooves and happy messages of peace and brotherhood.

But even without a "message" behind it espousing friendship or love, could music by its sound, tempo, and mood alone be used to assist in conveying human emotions to non-humans? Would it work both ways (i.e. aliens doing the same for us)? Looking at it from this perspective, it is interesting that there aren't many reports of alien abductees describing music that aliens played for them which come to mind. If indeed we could expect extraterrestrials to be anything like what we've seen in movies, could we ever anticipate hearing things like the famous theme of the Mos Eisley Cantina Band (from Star Wars) to be heard aboard flying saucers?

All references to film aside, in truth, music of that sort (especially while bug-eyed aliens were performing exotic probes on me) might actually make an alien abduction even more terrifying! Indeed, it would be hard to fathom what kind of messages they had been trying to get across, other than those involving sheer terror... but few would doubt that communication on some sublime (and scary) level had taken place!

Micah Hanks
Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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