Music is the universal language of mankind.
If you’ve ever thought classical music sounds weird and alien…try listening to it like an alien.
Try to imagine what it would mean to experience classical music through an alien’s ears.
Think this through properly.
We’re going to take a Martian to classical music concert. Mars is close, easy journey home.
So let’s take him to a concert, and see what he makes of it.
Hurry! The concert is about to begin…
A Martian sends a playlist home
We’re seated in the concert hall. Next to us is our Martian. What does he make of everything?
Let’s take a peek those rather large eyes…
On stage, a group of humans are making various noises by blowing and banging different objects together.
Over there, for example, is a human scraping bits of horse hair over some sheep gut that’s been stuck onto a bit of tree-
(cellist, we tell the alien)
-hardly rocket science, our Martian shrugs.
Well hang on, in fairness to our species, this orchestra is only tuning up.
But our Martian’s right not to be intimidated. Many of us approach classical music with far too much awe, reverence, and respect. And yet classical music is essentially a bunch of people banging and blowing and scraping bits of minerals, plants, and dead animals together.
It isn’t rocket science. It’s much more basic than that.
It’s music. And we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.
We’re now pretty good at it.
The Crafty Ape
A cello is made from bits of tree and bits of sheep. But a celll isn’t made from any bit of tree, nor its strings from any bit sheep.
All of the instruments of a classical symphony orchestra are the results of hundreds and in some cases thousands of years of human design, craft and innovation. That means humans spending lifteimes across lifteimes crafting different sorts of musical instruments, and developping them in different ways…all with the aim of creating the most interesting and pleasing sounds.
Classical music begins with this simple pleasure: enjoying the sounds its instruments produce.
Hang on, that twitching stalk is a give-away: our Martian’s getting bored.
No problem, as the lights dim, and a human takes the stage. The audience claps – the human bows – and lifts into the air a small bit of tree.
A hush falls on the audience.
The Concert – Bach
This sound is what we’ve brought our Martian to hear.
It’s a piece by Bach, specifically the first movement of his 2nd Brandenburg concerto.
But it’s something much more general we’ve come to show this Martian…
This wonderful noise called music. This is something about which our species can be really proud. We’re good at this, and this particular music is us doing it particularly well.
Take a wonder outside this concert hall, Mr Martian. Wherever you find the human race, you’ll hear this same passion for banging, blowing or scraping objects together. Wherever and WHENEVER. We’ve been producing this stuff for eons.
Who knows, maybe the point we started making it was when we first became recognizably Human in the first place?
Music is universal for our species. Every single culture and society on this planet makes music. Like language, music seems to be a fact of human nature, hard-wired into all our brains, and replicated across the globe.
If our Martian wants to understand what being a human can be, he just needs to listen our music.
Which he seems to be doing. He actually seems rather engrossed!
Least I’m taking that slime coming out of his ears as a positive sign.
The View from Space
The idea of presenting a Martian with classical music is NOT as silly as it sounds.
Back in the 1970’s, NASA asked top scientists to think about how we could actually interface with an alien culture. How we would actually try to speak to them.
The Biologist Lewis Thomas wrote a paper on the subject which concluded:
So classical music is mankind looking its best? Well…Lewis Thomas is talking about more than just showing off.
He goes on to say: “This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity.”
Music communicates very directly who we are, how we think and feel. It can explain to an alien – very simply and beautifully – what being human is.
NASA clearly agreed with Lewis Thomas.
Currently hurtling away from us in space some 4,000 million miles away (that’s some 1,500 million miles beyond Pluto’s orbit) are the two space probes whose launch I well remember as a small boy in 1977: the Voyager space probes.
Two of these were launched, to take advantage of a freak once-in-a million-years alignment of the outer planets of our solar system.
I grew up in the trajectory of their mission. I remember the first news of volcanos on Io, that came a couple of years later.
Then, a few years on, the first pictures of saturn’s rings…their photos of Uranus and Neptune remain our best to this day, it really was the Rolls Royce of space probes. And I believe they are still working.
STAY with me, there’s a reason I’m telling you this.
Just about the time those probes were heading beyond Neptune, and out into deep space, I heard this music. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2.
I was at college. Interested in fresh experiences. And I loved this piece. Or at least one 30-second bit of it. It was one of the first bits of classical music I ever loved. I bought the CD, maybe the first or second one I ever bought, and kept playing it.
So here’s the thing: on both Voyager space probes, there’s a laserdisk, with selected sounds and images of earth and humanity. An audio-visual hallmark greeting card from NASA, in case the probe encounters alien life some milennia ahead as it hurtles through what is actually almost totally empty space.
On that laserdisk, there’s also a piece of music by J.S. Bach.
And not just any piece, it’s a recording of the first movement 2nd Brandenburg Concerto in F.
The music we are listening to now. And the music that will make up the first 1/6th of this course!
Which brings us to the reason we’ve brought our alien to this concert. Sure, give him the complete works of Shakespeare, but how long will that take to digest??
But at this concert, listening to this Bach, he can instantaneously hear the very best of what it is to be human, communicated directly through harmonic sound.
Don’t get intimidated by classical music. It’s not an insolvable differential equation, it’s not a foreign language, it’s not an impenetrable mystery.
Think first of all like our alien: it’s music made by blowing, scraping, or banging bits of things we’ve found on this planet, and crafted with love and insight, all for the purpose of harmonic gratification.
And we always need to listen, like our alien, with fresh ears. That means less worrying about what classical music means. First, concentrate on how it sounds.
Treat this like a voyage of discovery.
Enjoy the trip!
- The Star Wars excerpt is here, with John Williams himself conducting.
- Wagner’s Ride of the Valkkyries is here.
- And for the very keen listener: the orchestra tuning is here.
- From the QUIZ, the Bruckner 7th extract is here.
- And of course Bach isn’t the only music on the “Sounds of the Earth” laserdisk attached to those Voyager probes. Click Here for the full playlist