by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute

Music is said to be the common language of humanity. But is it something particular to our species or could extraterrestrial beings also have music?

That may seem like a senseless question, given that we’ve never found proof that aliens exist.  But that situation might soon change.  There’s an ongoing effort by a small group of scientists to use large antennas to hunt down radio signals from other societies that are light-years away, an effort known as SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  SETI gains impetus from the knowledge that a trillion planets are scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy. That enormous tally makes it difficult to argue that no one is out there.

So if aliens turn out to be for real, it’s justifiable to wonder if they also have a musical muse.  Indeed, would they even know what music is?

We can’t ask them, but we can make an argument that is – while not ironclad – decent conversation fodder for your next dinner party.  In biology, there’s a general phenomenon called “convergent evolution.”  The idea is simple, namely that Darwinian evolution will frequently lead to similar solutions for similar environmental challenges. One example is the development of eyes.  Most multicellular organisms have evolved some form of vision because Earth is flooded with sunlight, and having an eye or two might help you to both catch dinner and avoid becoming dinner yourself.  Similarly, the ability to hear can be a life saver for organisms that live in cluttered environments (e.g., forests) where sight lines are short. You might hear danger before you see it.

For humans, being sensitive to sound has permitted language, which is perhaps hearing’s greatest app.   Indeed, language is so useful for disseminating information that we can assert its existence among the cosmos’ brainier beings.  Convergent evolution makes the case.

But music? Sure, it may soothe the savage breast, whatever that means.  But how does music help us survive?  Or more relevantly, how did it help our Paleolithic predecessors survive?

Asked another way, what good is music?  Biology is generally parsimonious, and traits that aren’t helpful aren’t kept. 

While the jury’s still out on this, there seem to be three general suggestions to explain our tuneful natures. The first is that, frankly, music is a superfluous artifact of other abilities, such as understanding speech. Because we have sophisticated systems to hear and interpret verbal communication, we also like certain rhythms and tonal sequences.  Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that music is “auditory cheesecake” – a pleasurable artifact.  You enjoy music because you can.

A second idea is that music arose because it was a social glue that helped our ancestors bond with one another and with a group.  Song-and-dance displays are useful for keeping kith and kin together, and perhaps intimidating others.  You like music because if your predecessors didn’t, they would have been obliterated by another tribe that was more cohesive.

A third idea is derivative from the ideas of Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico who argues that music’s utility is to signal “fitness” to potential mates.  If a male has musical talents, that’s a useful mechanism for giving females insight into your genome.  To play an instrument, to sing, or even tell a joke demands complex neurological performance.  Evolution has tuned females to read such displays as indicating genomic health, and a favorable prospect for any eventual offspring. (As an aside, this theory has the ancillary benefit of providing a provocative explanation for why 25,000 teenage women stormed a theater in Times Square when Frank Sinatra appeared there in 1944.)

If any of the above theories is correct, it implies that our ability and affinity for music is nature, not nurture.  This has been demonstrated by testing infants.  They seem to like fifths and fourths, rather than wolf tones.

So, invoking convergent evolution, and noting that – as in the case of Homo sapiens – intelligent extraterrestrials are likely to be social animals, it seems as if music is very likely to be in their repertoire, as it were. 

Consequently, the effort of scratching 90 minutes of music onto the Voyager golden record – hurled into the depths of space in the 1970s – might be more than self-indulgence. The aliens just might like it.

Coming soon on this blog . . .

A playlist of musical selections that aliens might enjoy