Monday, May 11, 2009

music between worlds

Roederer | Speech and music both involve the transmission of information by acoustic waves—air pressure oscillations within given ranges of frequency and amplitude. We have a clear understanding of what kind of information is conveyed by human speech, and strategies and algorithms are being developed to configure electromagnetic signals that may allow an alien intelligence to learn about human language and its relation to events in the environment and abstract things like numbers. Similar considerations apply to our strategies and algorithms to find out about the possible existence of linguistic communication in other civilizations. But what kind of biologically relevant information is conveyed by music? From our subjective experience we know that it has to do with feelings, i.e., the emotional states of the organism—but how do we explain this to an alien civilization? And how do we look for interstellar messages that may carry information on emotional states of extraterrestrial beings?

A related aspect difficult to convey as an interstellar message is the fact that, in contrast to speech, music seems to serve no immediate “practical” purpose (this, of course, is common to all expressions of art). Again, we know from experience that an important purpose of music is emotional arousal. But can we explain why we respond emotionally to successions and superpositions of tones which seem to have little relationship with environmental events, current or in our evolutionary past? And if we do have an answer, how would we formulate it in an interstellar message? Must we assume that musical feelings are such a ubiquitous attribute of intelligent beings that our message would be understood at once?

The purpose of this chapter is to analyze “music” as a human endeavor in the most comprehensive, objective and scientific terms possible, and to argue on neuroscientific grounds that musical arts may indeed be ubiquitous in civilizations exhibiting human-like intelligence.