The vinyl frontier: why do we keep sending music to outer space?

Sónar festival is beaming cutting-edge dance music to an exoplanet 12 light years from Earth. But can such experiments ever be more than hubris?

The Voyager Golden Record, carrying Johnny B Goode to alien life forms.
The Voyager Golden Record, carrying Johnny B Goode to alien life forms. Photograph: SSPL via Getty Images

The vinyl frontier: why do we keep sending music to outer space?

Sónar festival is beaming cutting-edge dance music to an exoplanet 12 light years from Earth. But can such experiments ever be more than hubris?

What item would you choose to sum up humanity if you were, like Captain James T Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, seeking out new life and new civilisations? A “five items or less” sign from a supermarket, with a note explaining why it should be “fewer”? Maybe a selection of press cuttings about the Greggs sausage roll Jesus controversy, summing up both humanity’s silliness and its capacity for overreaction?

Of course you wouldn’t. You’d do what the Barcelona electronic music festival Sónar has done to mark its 25th anniversary: send out 33 separate 10-second clips of music by electronic artists such as Autechre, Richie Hawtin and Holly Herndon.

The music was broadcast – in binary code, with instructions, also in binary, on how to decode it – from the EISCAT antenna in Tromsø, Norway, over three days last week. Its destination? Luyten’s Star, 12.4 light years from Earth, which has an exoplanet, GJ273b, believed to be habitable. And, dammit, if there is life there, they will get to hear our most cutting-edge dance music, and they’ll like it.

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One might, if one were uncharitable, conclude that this is all an extraterrestrial publicity stunt. Heaven forfend. “It’s not about publicity,” Sónar co-director Ricard Robles explains via email. “We wanted to create a joint project with selected artists from the festival’s history, and this presented a great opportunity to create something together that also ties into other elements that have been key to the festival’s identity for the last 25 years; namely the joining of art and science, and yes, having a bit of fun with it.” Robles also points out that Sónar project has some scientific credibility, with support from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

As long as humankind has ventured into space, it has tried to take music into the unknown. On 7 December 1965, aboard Gemini 6A, the astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford played Jingle Bells on harmonica and hand bells over the radio, for the benefit of ground control – though they looked like amateurs compared to the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who became the first person to film a music video in space when he performed Space Oddity aboard the International Space Station in 2013.

Chris Hadfield performing Space Oddity on the International Space Station.
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Chris Hadfield performing Space Oddity on the International Space Station. Photograph: Chris Hadfield/Canadian Space Agency/Nasa/EPA

But astronauts perform music for benefit of other humans. More interesting is the use of music to communicate with other life forms, pioneered in 1977 with the Voyager Golden Record. When the Voyager spacecraft was launched, among its contents were two records – yes, actual records – containing a selection of earthly sounds, including Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode and Glenn Gould playing Bach, along with instructions on how to play them. A message from US president Jimmy Carter accompanied the discs: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”

Other music has followed: the British space vehicle Beagle 2, launched in 2003, carried the music of Blur to Mars, to transmit back to Earth, but it disappeared for 11 years and no one knows if it managed to play the Blur song. Hence the first song successfully beamed back to Earth from another planet was will.i.am’s Reach for the Stars, broadcast from Mars by the US Curiosity vehicle in 2012.

The more one thinks about music being sent into space in the hope of reaching extraterrestrial lifeforms, the more it seems a pointless task. No piece of music, no matter how beloved, can ever capture more than the tiniest fraction of even humanity’s love of melody, let alone say anything broader about life on Earth. What’s more, space communication operates on timescales so vast that any piece of music will capture a tiny fragment of a time long gone by the point any life gets to hear it – if extraterrestrials heard the Voyager record, Johnny B Goode would be precisely as helpful for understanding humanity as my finding a farthing in a field would be for my comprehension of economic conditions in the 1930s.

Robles says that’s not the point. What music – any music – could convey to other life forms, he says, is “simply the concepts of rhythm and melody. Music has a structure that belies intelligence and purpose, and that’s one of the reasons we chose to send the message in this form – it’s a signal that can let anyone who’s listening know that we’re here, we’re intelligent, and we want to talk.” Though, he admits: “This doesn’t mean it will translate to extraterrestrial life – the possible inhabitants of Luytens B might not even have ears.”

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At its heart, perhaps, what sending music into space best demonstrates is the hubris of humankind: the presumption that another civilisation would, first, comprehend this was music; second, have the inclination to go about interpreting it; third, be impressed by it.

It’s a mindset summed up by the London synthpop group Monarchy, who announced in 2010 that they would play their debut gig at Cape Canaveral and beam it into space. Being an unknown pop group, they weren’t allowed on to the Nasa precincts, and beaming their gig into space really meant exactly what international broadcasting has been for decades: sending a signal out of the atmosphere, but in this case it not being bounced back by a satellite. It was not interstellar communication, it was simply a gig broadcast to no one. Not long after, Monarchy were dropped by Mercury Records before their album had been released.

But let’s put cynicism aside for a moment. Let’s assume there are sentient beings with ears on GJ273b. Let’s assume they manage to decode the instructions on how to hear the music. And let’s assume they decide to communicate back. What would Robles and the Sónar team do if they were the first recipients of a directed communication from another planet? “The soonest a reply could arrive would be in 25 years,” he says. “In which case, we’ll throw a 50th anniversary party.”