Saturday, August 1, 2015

Music in Alien Civilizations

Would life in an alien civilization be boring? After the civilization had been around for a few millennia, and had already reached asymptotic technology, innovation in technology would disappear. We live in an era of incessant technology change, with appliances, phones, computers, automobiles, fixtures, and everything else changing year by year as new models are invented, new capabilities are added, new improvements included, and so on. If all that disappeared, wouldn’t life be quiet, and, frankly, dull?

There have been periods of human civilization here on Earth where technology change has been negligible. During the Stone Age, which lasted for about 3 million years, there were some changes in how stone was chipped into arrowheads and pestles, how pottery was made and decorated, jewelry and probably some things that are not preserved in the archeological record. The Neolithic Revolution, when agriculture was invented, about 7000 BC, was a gigantic change compared to the period before it. But there are so many generations in the three million years up to the Neolithic Revolution, that most people saw no change whatsoever in their lives, from childhood to death, nor did they hear of any change from their parents or grandparents. People in the Stone Age did not die of boredom. There is a tremendous variety of stimuli that does not involve technological change, and even in the Stone Age they experienced this. Much of the interaction that they had was from their interaction with each other, and much from their interaction with nature.

The same would be true in alien civilizations past asymptotic technology. There would be a wide variety of interactions with other people, and with the infrastructure of the civilization’s cities. Some of the interactions with people would certainly involve art. Let’s explore what music might be like in an alien civilization.

This is based on the assumption that the aliens live in a fluid that supports sound, and it is likely that if this is true, they have evolved ears to hear it. Long before there were intelligent aliens on the planet they have, there would have been lesser evolved creatures, and the use of sound would provide an evolutionary advantage. It is only reasonable to assume that the alien citizens would have excellent hearing. It is also likely that even before they developed communal living, in small villages, they would have discovered music. It is a fundamental exposition of the abstraction of sound into something repeatable. Our music is composed of beat and tone, which are the two basic components of comprehensible sound itself. So we would expect that any alien planet would have developed some sort of use of sound they could create, with eventually both beat and tone components. In the beginning, before the alien planet had developed a way of writing and the much more complex method of writing music, it would have been transmitted via an apprenticeship process. It seems almost obvious that this would require some members of society to commit time and effort to memorizing some music in order to repeat it. Thus, there would have been musicians on the alien planet, long before they had much technology. On Earth, early instruments for tone were based on vibrating strings and resonant tubes, and beat on these instruments plus chambers for percussion alone. It is hard to see how music’s early days could be much different that what it was on Earth in the later Stone Age.

Since alien hearing is going to be preserved during the period of civilizational development, it would be an easy assumption to make that music and musicians would be coincidentally developed as well, along with means of recording it and an explosion in the types of instruments that could be used to make music. Thus, by the time they reach asymptotic technology, they have the recordings of music of thousands of years available to them. This means that innovation in music is likely to be as extinct as innovation in technology, but it does not mean that music would die along with it. Far from it.

Aliens in their cities would have access to recorded music, and the variety would be forbiddingly huge. On Earth, new genres are invented all the time, and a few thousand years of new genres adds up to a lot. Thus, there would have to be some categorization and organization, as the relationship between different centuries’ musical expressions would be understood and used to clarify what was in the archives. So, music of any type should be available, and with technology at its eternal peak, the ability to listen to it in a proper environment would also be available.

Playing music would be similar to what we do now, with some very big changes. It would be expected that the aliens would have extended their lifespans, using technology that we do not yet have much of a clue about, so that an artist could have much more experience if he chose to. On the other hand, playing music could be a temporary career on an alien world, something to be done for a decade or two before transitioning to something else. Furthermore, advances in robotics and genetics would imply that there might be robots and intellos who could play music better than any alien. This would not necessarily imply that aliens themselves would not become musicians, permanently or temporarily, for the intense enjoyment that making music brings, nor that the performance of such music would not be appreciated by the society in which they live. Since alien society would likely not have work requirements for its citizens, there would be ample time to play both roles, that of musician and that of music fan, to whatever degree a citizen would prefer.

There is more to be said about music itself. At this time, we on Earth do not have any deep understanding of how music interacts with the brain, in other words, why music affects many people so strongly and deeply. By the time we are discussing, the aliens would have completed their understanding of neurology and psychology, and would know, exactly and completely, the answers to these questions. There would be centuries of musical creation after asymptotic neurology is achieved, in which a composer could use his understanding of how music affects alien citizens to write music that was even more impressive that otherwise. Perhaps the knowledge that will be gained in asymptotic neurology will turn out to be nothing more that the cause-and-effect part of what earlier alien composers had already understood intuitively, so music after the asymptotic neurology threshold will not be more impressive that earlier music from the greatest of alien composers was, or perhaps it will be. This is a question that we have no basis to guess the answer to. The answer might be very complex, and alien researchers in neurology may find that different members of the alien civilization appreciate music differently, and no musical composition can reach all of them, or they may find that there are some universals that affect every one of the citizens. If alien citizens become more uniform due to genetic improvements, this difference would disappear, and it would be likely that the alien citizens could all have the gift of music appreciation.

From this we can create a picture of what music would be like in a ten thousand or even million year old alien civilization. It would most likely play a large part in the lives of alien citizens, both in playing it and listening to it, and it would be very impressive to them, able to affect them in different ways. The variety would be much greater than we have now, as there might be music written by composers that only a robot could play, but which would affect the citizens more than anything they themselves could play. The music library in a city would be immense, and the understanding of how to categorize music would be thorough, so that as a cycle of interest in a city swung round to something from long ago, connections to it could be found and enjoyed. If music is any indication of life in an long-enduring alien civilization, it would be as far from boring as we can imagine, despite technology having run its course long before.

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