By Eleni Papageorgiou,
The motive for writing this article sprang from a reading about a 1977 experiment by NASA and spacecrafts Voyager 1 & 2. Certain questions also sprang about the connection between music, mathematics and the Universe.
Music is a global language. That is what many researchers have claimed and I guess it is true. Anybody can communicate through music across the globe, without getting to know the Indian, Chinese, Greek, French etc language. You can enjoy compositions by various artists, thus eliminating cultural and linguistic boundaries. Music conveys emotions which are universal. You can feel the happiness or sadness of a musical piece, just as you can feel the sadness, happiness, anger or any other emotion through spoken language. Features, like rhythm, pitch, tempo, harmony and beat, are common in spoken languages and music.
What about thoughts? Can music convey thoughts across multicultural borders? Just like language, music has its own syntax -a way to order various elements into a more complex structure. Musicians use notes to make chords, which are put together to make a musical piece and so on. Yet, none of these elements can stand on its own and convey a meaning or a thought. In that sense music can’t be characterized as a universal language. Nevertheless, since music can touch our soul and feelings, it is certainly a kind of language deeply appreciated by humanity.
Can we trace similarities between music and mathematics? The answer is yes.
Going back to Pythagoras and Plato we can surely say that music and maths are intertwined. According to Pythagoras, the father of mathematics, there is music everywhere in the world. He experimented with stretched strings and his findings concerning vibration, pitch, tone and length are amazing. Plato also claimed that “music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety to life and to everything”. Later, Galileo Galilei stated that “the entire universe is written in the language of mathematics”.
Musical scores are read just as the way we read math symbols. There is a procedure for the formation of a musical piece. Beats are put together to form a measure and measures in a row form a musical piece. A beat is a mathematical division of time and everything around music has strong connotations with the science of mathematics. After all, mathematics is the voice of nature.
Music is also associated with terms such as infant care, healing, love, mourning, war, dance, rituals and many more. Perhaps that is what the researchers at the NASA Institute had in mind when they decided to experiment with music as a cosmic language.
In 1977, NASA placed a gold-plated copper disc on spacecrafts Voyager 1 & 2 in order to transfer signs of life on Earth to extraterrestrials. The disc contained the story of the human race, hoping to be found, sometime in the future, by aliens and be properly appreciated. The disc cover showed a phonograph record and the stylus needed to be played, a hydrogen atom, a pulsar map and various lines -quite inexplicable for an amateur in astronomy and physics.
As for the content of the disc, it was carefully selected by a committee, who gathered 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, musical selections from all over our world and from different eras and finally greetings in 55 languages spoken on Earth. Images from Earth included cells, human sex organs, fetus, birth, family, monuments, seashores, trees, animals, forests, various tribes, professions, houses, landmarks, museums, factories etc. All in all, every human aspect of life and shots of our natural environment.
Music contained a selection (90-minute long) of various genres, eras, artists and regions. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, percussion from Senegal, Zaire, panpipes from the Solomon Islands, Peru, music from China, India, Bulgaria, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Japan, Mexico etc, songs like “Johnny B. Goode”, “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong etc. Sounds of Earth were also included like the sound of all means of transport, heartbeat, laughter, the roar of wild animals, the sweet song of birds, the sound of a thunder, a volcanic eruption and loads more.
Lots of people took part in the making of this disc and hundreds of hours were spent by designers, developers and manufacturers in order to make sure that the disc would be long-lasting, all-inclusive and very informative for any potential recipient.
Why all this fuss? We can guess what the aim of this experiment was. Since music is appreciated as a universal language, then all creatures -even extraterrestrials- could probably understand its deeper meaning and get in touch with people on Earth. Up till now, no signs of communication have been received but who knows what may happen in the near or distant future? Perhaps the next generations on Earth might have the privilege of communication with aliens with the help of music and universal changes might take place.
- EurekAlert, Music is universal, Available here
- Ludden, D., Is Music a Universal Language?, Psychology Today, Available here
- Makeup & Breakup, Music, Mathematics, Metaphor – The Language of Perspectives, Available here
- Voyager, The Golden Record Cover, NASA – Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Available here