You probably remember Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in which, in a memorable final scene, humans communicate with aliens with music, specially with that well known “D E C C G” melody that would be later hummed by everyone. Behind this original plot lies the famous idea that music is a universal language, a leitmotif in philosophy, anthropology or history. Therefore, if music is a universal language, what can be best than music to communicate with alien civilisations?
However, when the universality of music is talked about, the term universe is used very lightly. In fact, it refers only to humankind. When we use phrases like «music is the universal language, it transcends the borders between nations» or «all cultures understand music», we are implying that music is a very human thing. But, could music really be universal? Would alien civilisations appreciate Beethoven?
For this to be possible, music should have selective advantage, which would make different species to develop music in evolutionary convergence. It is estimated that eyes have developed independently in 50 different ways in different lineages on Earth, which makes us reasonably sure that extraterrestrial complex organisms will have developed eyes if they have a similar light to ours. Along the same lines, if we find different examples of animals that have developed music, it would increase the chances of extraterrestrial beings having developed it as well.
And they have. There is a wide range of singing animals, and the better known example is birds. These animals use their singing with a twofold purpose —to defend their territory, usually with a simple chant that only means «I live here, go away»; and to court the females, using a more beautiful and musical chant, whose complexity is the result of sexual selection. In short, the ladies pick the better singers, and this means that little by little the singing improves generation after generation.
But not only birds are good singers. Some insects are surprisingly good at this as well, like Asian cicadas, which sing like birds, or the forget-me-not shieldbug (Sehirus luctuosus), whose buzzing sounds like a peculiar kind of jazz percussion. Although there is small room for improvisation— in the insect world music has a rigid structure that is genetically predetermined.
Among mammals we find a surprise: mice. In 2005, researchers at the University of Washington saw that when males smelled the female pheromones they emitted ultrasounds (high-frequency sounds we are unable to feel). When they registered these ultrasounds and reduced their frequency to make them audible, they found, to their surprise, that mice sing! with chants similar to the birds’. Males sing their songs as a part of their courtship ritual, probably with the same purpose as birds— that the female chooses the best singer as her partner. These songs are learnt, but they even have some space for improvisation, because each mouse chooses what song to sing, which is different for every mouse, even in the case of twin mice that are genetically identical.
When intelligence increases, so does music quality. We can’t forget about whales when talking about singing mammals. They are magnificent sea composers, among which baleen whales maybe the better known for their musical talent. Again we find courtship as a purpose, since only males sing, and only and in the mating season. Curiously enough, the males in the same region sing the same song. They are in a minor key and can last up to half an hour. It was recently found that these songs are rhymed. Moreover, songs change little by little throughout time, and are different from year to year. That is, songs are composed by modifying pre-existing songs, contrary to what humans do —we usually compose from the scratch.
And what about our closest relatives, apes and primates? Surprisingly, gorillas’ and chimpanzees’ musical abilities are none. Aside from ourselves, there are only four families of singing primates, and it seems that this ability has evolved independently. These are gibbons, marmosets, Philippine tarsiers and indris. From them, gibbons are our closest relatives. Music is very important in their social life— they sing daily for 15 minutes a few times a day. In this case the singing has more to do with social cohesion and territory marking. Usually, a couple sings together, or maybe the whole tribe, using polyphonies and harmonies that are worthy of Bach himself.
Can we thus infer from these examples that music is a universal language? Maybe not. There are differences between animal and human music. Animal music is long-distance communication, while human music doesn’t seem to be particularly related to distance. Rhythm is another story. It is one of the more outstanding characteristics of our music, whereas in animal music rhythm is usually irregular or absent. Finally, animal music is exclusively related to cohesion and the defense of a territory and courtship. And, while it is true that we use music for courtship and that anthems (national or football) are clearly territorial, it doesn’t seem that this is the real purpose of human music.
Its real purpose is to awake our feelings. It is what it does best —it is pleasurable, it saddens us, it thrills us, it makes us nervous… If our galactic neighbours have some kind of music, most surely it will have nothing to do with this, but, probably, their music will have more to do with courtship or territory, because that is what we recurrently find in the animal world.
Probably they won’t get a thrill when listening to Beethoven, or be mesmerised by John Williams’ “D E C C G”. As Leonard Bernstein once said «music is emotion». Human emotion, though.
Originally published in Mètode.