Feature: Music in Space Back to Features page
As the Voyager II space probe continues its journey to the edge our Solar System, it carries recordings of classical music 8 billion miles from earth. We ask what aliens will make of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chuck Berry.
In 1977, the Voyager space probes were launched on a four-year mission to send back pictures and measurements of Jupiter and Saturn. In what has to be one of the most remarkable successes in the history of space travel, the probes were re-programmed from Earth and their mission extended indefinitely with the hope that another intelligent life form might stumble across them.
“These space probes were remarkably successful and continue to be so,” said Mark Bailey of the Armagh Observatory. “They have shown us how duration missions might be done in the future, with manned missions to the stars...It also provides a rather sobering reflection on the real size of the solar system, which we sometimes take for granted because we’ve got images of Jupiter and Saturn, but it took those spacecraft 20 years to get there.”
About the size of a small car and travelling at more than 35,000 miles per hour, the probes each carry gold plated discs containing greetings in 55 languages and 90 minutes of music including Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto and Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. The music was selected for NASA by a committee of experts chaired by Dr Carl Sagan of Cornell University.
The music selected for the record is an eclectic mix intended to represent the diverse cultures of the planet Earth. Included are numerous western classical works as well as a Navajo chant, Indian raga, Peruvian panpipe music and Japanese, Mexican and Chinese songs. Popular music is also represented with Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode, and Louis Armstrong’s recording of Melancholy Blues.The classical works chosen represent four composers who are arguably the major musical figures of their respective periods - the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modernist.
Bach's work spans the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, and his contribution to the development of harmony has impacted on everything written after it. His music is characterized by complex counterpoint and ornate and energetic melody. The best travelled baroque composer in the universe contributed Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to the space probe. This piece was written as part of a set of six and given to the Duke of Brandenburg in the hope that it would result in employment. This concerto is notable for it's fiendishly high trumpet part, which makes most players go weak at the knees, even when they have the benefit of a modern instrument.
Known to many as the greatest musical genius of all time, Mozart had something of a Midas touch. Every musical genre he explored ended up irrevocably changed as a result of his contributions and developments. His contribution to the intergalactic album was the Queen of the Night's Aria from The Magic Flute. In this aria, again famous for it's perilous high notes, the Queen tries to convince her daughter to murder a high priest, telling her she will disown her if she does not.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is at once both a masterpiece of classical development and one of the first seeds of romanticism. The entire piece is, fundamentally, based on it's opening four note figure (G, G, G, E-Flat). The piece progresses not just through each movement but through the symphony as a whole to a glorious finish.
There is much talk of a riot at the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The fracas ensued in part because of the subject matter - the sacrifice of a young virgin, and in part because of the music itself. Stravinsky's use of cacophonously discordant music and pounding rhythms make this the definitive modernist work.
In 1977, the cutting edge format was the long-playing record. Vinyl wouldn’t last very long in space, so the disc was made out of copper and plated with gold. In case the aliens haven’t invented the record player, Nasa thoughtfully included a stylus and pickup cartridge. The record sleeve, presumably the most expensive in history, is also gold plated and is engraved with diagrams explaining how to play it.
It cost nearly a billion dollars to send the two nuclear powered probes off into space at fifty times the speed of sound, making the delivery charges at Amazon seem like a bargain. It seems only natural that we should want to include some kind of greeting to anybody that found it, but what are the chances of anybody ever listening to the record?
Assuming aliens exist, and can travel in space, they still have to see this thing coming towards them at 35,000mph. They have to be interested enough in it to chase after it and study it carefully rather than just dismantling it for spare parts or using it for target practice. Assuming that they realise that it carries an attempt at communication, they still have to work out what the instructions mean before they can make a record player to play it on.
After all this has been taken into account, there is still no guarantee that aliens have ears – they might not communicate vocally at all. The scientists responsible for the project were well aware of this risk, as Carl Sagan said, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
More information about the Voyager missions can be found at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory website.