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  • Sound as Intercultural Communication:A Meta-Analysis of Music with Implications for SETI
  • Andrew Kaiser

Interstellar communication is as much about human consciousness as it is about technological advances, both in terms of the messages we intend to transmit and in how we may go about interpreting a message received from another culture.

The premise of this paper is that music encodes something of our consciousness that is essentially human, regardless of the civilization from which it emerges. However, analytical methods are very closely tied to our cultural predeterminants. An alternative method would be to use a tool that analyzes sounds and then graphs the amplitude of frequency over time. This would show a representation of the physical shaping of a sonic event for a given musical section.

Musical structure is usually considered the arrangement of pitch, temporal divisions and other stylistic features. For our purposes, it is useful to replace some common musical terms with language that keeps as close as possible to the physical, sensual nature of the sonic event.

Spectrum is a term that can replace a traditional discussion of pitch. Sound is the articulation of energy waves through the medium of air, received by a transducer in the human ear. Whereas pitch and tuning concepts vary between human cultures, spectrum shows the activation of overtones. Spectrum analysis asks whether it is possible to capture the sonic event at a point before the brain interprets it and then to describe it in terms removed from individual understanding and analytic backgrounds.

Motion is a term that can be used to replace harmonic progression. Harmony is traditionally understood as the progression of chords through time, as well as the vertical arrangement of pitches. Motion would imply patterning of any kind through any number of parameters.

Pulse can be used to replace discussion of rhythmic concepts such as "meter" or "beat." The very physicality of the shared human condition lends itself to cyclic sonic concepts such as drone, repetition, silence—we breathe, our hearts beat, our lungs pump and eventually stop.

Analysis of a wide variety of music—including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hildegaard of Bingen and Tuvan throat singing—shows that very different musical constructs share similar characteristics when viewed as created by raw sound (see Fig. 3). This analysis is influenced by Robert Cogan [1], who applied a linguistic phonological analysis [End Page 36] to develop a graphic representation of the sound material of a piece.

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Fig. 3.

The spectrum of a musical selection by Hildegaard of Bingen shows motion through three gestures, with each gesture having a peak that defines the pulse of the sample.

© Andrew Kaiser

In the last 30 years there have arisen a number of techniques for musical analysis that are influenced by linguistics and that attempt to create an understanding of music that is independent of any idiom. Composer Fred Lerdhahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff have published A Generative Theory of Tonal Music[2]. Other analysts have been influenced by Noam Chomsky, particularly his ideas suggesting that humanity as a species shares a syntax underlying all languages.

Spectrum, motion and pulse are broad areas for initial research. The working hypothesis is that continued study of this physical representation of the sonic structure will show patterns that are generically human, with mapping between the sonic event and human physicality. Future study will include adaptations of LINCOS [3], a logical language for interstellar message construction that could be expanded to encode musical information.

Andrew Kaiser
5436 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206, U.S.A. E-mail: <>.


1. Robert Cogan, New Images of Musical Sound (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).
2. Fred Lerdhahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983).
3. Hans Freudenthal, LINCOS: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. Part I. Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1960).


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pp. 36-37
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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