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Research Suggests We Could Recognize and Appreciate Alien Music

When we think about the reality of meeting an extraterrestrial race, we often think about the difficulty, and sometimes supposed impossibility, of communicating or even recognizing that communication was being attempted. We wonder, also, how we could recognize a culture completely outside of our frames of reference. Could we even identify alien artwork, let alone appreciate it? Could we recognize alien music, if they indeed had a concept of music? A paper published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that humans would be able to recognize and appreciate alien music due to our ability to process language, provided that it follows a couple of rules, and suggests that we might have an easier time understanding a completely alien culture than we’ve previously thought. OK, music nerd time. Sorry. The rules in question aren’t specifically musical rules, or even specific grammatical rules, but sort of “meta rules” of structure and coherence. Alien music would need to be built on local and non-local dependencies. Dependencies, in terms of music, are the commonalities that make a song sound like one coherent piece. A local dependency binds two adjacent things together—something like a drum pattern repeating every four bars—and non-local dependencies bind non-adjacent things together. Non-local dependencies can be understood in terms of pop-music: the classic verse-chorus structure. The two verses are non-adjacent, because they’re separated by a chorus, but the second verse follows a rule set up by the first. This is used to create anticipation, resolution, emotional resonance and all the things that make music awesome. It’s not confined to pop-music at all, you’ll find local and non-local dependencies throughout all human music from classical, to punk rock, to non-western music like that from India or the Arab peninsula, that use completely different scales and rhythmic figures, but pop’s simplicity makes it a very easy example. Right, got that out of my system. That explanation is important, though. Essentially, as long as alien music had some sort of internal structure, we’d be able to recognize it even if it followed exactly zero musical rules that our culture had prepared us for.

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