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I’ve seen a description of how a group of notes is chosen, so the concepts starting with the octave are based on natural phenomena and principles. For example, an object will vibrate with a fundamental note and overtones that are integer multiples of that.

To generalize, a group of notes are in harmony if the frequencies have small integer ratios; a collection of notes is chosen to have a large number of harmonious relations within the set. Building an instrument like a flute where you uncover different holes, or a bugle which plays different notes depending on how you tense your face, shows these concepts in the physics.

Would aliens come up with the same notes? I don't mean the convention of 220 Hz etc. but rather the relationship between frequencies no matter what they’re anchored at.

Is there another principle that could be used to produce a set of notes, that would be so different as to not sound harmonious to us? (But we would agree that makes sense on paper, and follows from ideas of how materials naturally produce complex timbre)

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Quite Possibly, but it depends on a number of factors.

First up, answering the easier part of the question: Are there other principles by which the relationship between tones can be set? The answer is yes, and it's been done. Robert Schneider (Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in the Stereo) created a new musical scale based on Logarithms. You can hear an example of it Here. It's strange, but once you get used to it you can hear how the notes relate to each other, and recognise the "Chords". If anyone wants more information on how it works, the paper is online Here.

As for the harder part; Would Alien Music be recognisable as such to us? That in itself is a question about biology as much as anything. What is Music? What are Tones? Our biological composition allows us to "hear" vibration in a specific range of frequencies (on average, 20 Hz to 20 kHz), and our brains interpret that as sound.

While it is not implausible to assume that other species would evolve sensitivity to vibration, in order for us to "hear" their music at all, they would need to have evolved to respond to the same range of frequencies as us. Not totally improbable, but given that - even on Earth where we're all exposed to the same sorts of frequencies - there is variance between species, unless they are also from an Earth-like planet they might evolve sensitivity to stuff we can't hear.

Assuming that they DO "hear" the same frequencies at us, and also develop some form of music (not guaranteed), Then it's down to Mathematics: The relationship between notes is purely mathematical in nature, regardless of what system is being used. If their maths is like ours (and as far as we know mathematical relationships are invariant so this should be true), then their music might sound strange, but it should be recognisable as such when you get used to it.

P.S. I've chosen to determine "Meaningful" as "Recognisable as Music and potentially enjoyable/musically interesting", given that our own race is perfectly capable of producing "musical" travesties utterly devoid of meaning :P

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. Your PS is spot on. There are forms of music I recognise as music although they no meaning, other than that recognition, for me. Humans find the sounds of birds and whales "meaningful" as music, but it is an open question if they are music. This may be just humans as pattern seeking animals finding patterns, perhaps, where none exists. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 7 '16 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ Almost any brained living being (on earth) perceive musics, most creatures just start to move at the same time of music. Even certain fly species, but most mammals do that. $\endgroup$ – GameDeveloper Nov 7 '16 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with the PS - years ago I went to see an Opera-ish thing by Stockhausen. There was noise, but the only bit that struck me as even vaguely Musical was a three note trumpet sequence that was played outside the venue as people were arriving/departing. The performance itself never came close to anything I'd consider as music - so if human performers can do that, I'm sure aliens could too :). But if the alien music has patterns and rythms, then I think we'd be likely to recognise it as music - though the sound palette used could determine whether we'd actually like it. $\endgroup$ – JerryTheC Nov 7 '16 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ Another issue beyond frequency is tempo. Many melodies could be shifted up or down throughout a five-octave range (32:1) and still be recognizable, but the range of tempos at which a piece is recognizable may be much more limited. $\endgroup$ – supercat Nov 8 '16 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ Pitch perception is really complicated. There are rate and place based models of pitch perception. We process resolved and unresolved harmonics differently. We can perceive the missing fundamental. Even inharmonic sounds can have pitches. Not sure why we should assume pitch processing would be the same in aliens. $\endgroup$ – StrongBad Nov 9 '16 at 15:11
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Assuming it existed in an audible range we could hear (and presumably technology could help to bridge that gap by downshifting/upshifting frequencies as desired for us to hear their music and them to hear ours, which would also be useful for speech of course), then there's a distinct possibility we would find it to be musical, but it would likely be very strange.

However, given how much of our harmonic idea is based on actual physical effects and relationships, one does wonder how strange it might be. Some of the most important intervals we use in modern music are based on (not exactly the same as, but based on) the harmonic series, which is determined by physics.

Think about a bugle or a natural trumpet - they're just long tubes with a mouthpiece on one end (okay, they're cones, but hey). The notes produced by these instruments are the harmonic series on top of the fundamental, under the influence of the player's lips and breath. Assuming an alien race can blow into things in a similar way, I'd guess it's quite likely that they would explore the harmonic series and it would come to feature in some way in their music.

Now, they might decide entirely different intervals are pleasing or displeasing compared to us, but we see variation in those ideas across musical cultures around the world anyway. They may end up using a similar sort of scale to, say, the twelve-tone scale of Western classical music, but that they like their music to go to completely different places. Most of our music returns "home" at the end - arriving back in the same tonality it started in, or some small variation on it. Perhaps some aliens might prefer their music to go somewhere else and stay there. So you have to think about psychology as well. Humans like going back to where we started, going back home. Perhaps a race of aliens who don't have homes would reflect that transience in their music. Perhaps they'd have some less accepted composers exploring the idea of music that returns to where it started from.

Music does have basis in physics, as evidenced by the use of the harmonic series as a basis for many of our intervals, but the rest of it is cultural, and a product of both human psychology and human technology. Alien psychology could be very different, and their technology also, so they would have the means of producing different sounds with different ease compared to our own. Maybe they would never have anything that sounds like our reed instruments due to never having anything physically akin to the cane we make reeds out of.

And of course, their anatomy would determine the kind of instruments they would be capable of playing. Wind instruments for bipeds with two hands with five digits on each and one mouth are likely to be quite different to wind instruments for a being which can inhale and exhale simultaneously (through different orifices) but only has four tentacles.

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    $\begingroup$ Would be difficult if aliens had a hugely wider hearing range. Or if they were incredibly sensitive to pitch and composed complicated symphonies in a range that is just three notes to us. $\endgroup$ – gnasher729 Nov 9 '16 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ Very well written. Technically correct and plausable. The OP did ask about mathematical harmonic relationships, "the relationship between frequencies no matter what [pitch] they’re anchored at". $\endgroup$ – n00dles Nov 10 '16 at 3:28
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On a basic level musical notes do have a basic mathematical foundation based on harmonic theory.

However exactly how that is implemented can vary quite a lot. Even just in western music conventions for how scale are constructed have changed over time. This is partly to do with the practicalities of generating notes on a physical instrument (temperament) and real world tunings will be some compromise in achieving acceptable tuning across different keys.

This harmonic relationship is a fundamental property of the sorths of things which mumand use as musical instruments eg by plucking strings or blowing to vibrate columns of air. On the other hand puely in terms of signals ther is nothing special about it and you could certainly imagine that coherent music could be based on other analagous mathermatical series. Especiallly if the muiscal tradition is based on electromagnetic waves rather than sound propagating through air.

There is also the fact that western music is typically based on dividing an octave into 12 steps which are combined to create intervals and chords. However it is entirely possible to use much smaller steps and indeed continuous modulation of a note and some musical traditions use microtonal intervals which can sound strange to western ears.

Another important consideration is the environment in which music developed, for example, a race which used sonar as their main sense might produce sonic sculpture which was very different from the way we understand music and closer to the way that we perceive visual art. Similary their visual art may be pulasting harmonic frequencies of light.

To put it another way, our human senses are arranged in such a way that we tend to naturally interpret visual information as relating to space in a farliy alalytical way wheras music and sound tends to be interpreted on more of a subconcious level. Obviously songs with lyrics and some styles of art mess with this but I thkn the principal is reaonably self-evident.

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I strongly believe that: Yes we would find it meaningfull, even if they developed different notes or a different musical system, we had in our history different musical systems and notes. What we find amazing in music are frequencies and times ratios, that's also why it is possible to generate music just by using a computer program. We can perceive good beats like 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, then after that it starting to sound strange. In example a 7/4 beat is perceived usually as 5/4 + 2/4 or 4/4 + 3/4 neither like 7/4. Possibly this is the only limit of our brain and music on 7/4 would sound very strange (but still sound like music).

Online there are tools that allows to generate sound frequencies, Just play with them randomly set some frequencies to make a sound that to you perceive as music, you will find that you did music even if you did not used the same exact frequencies of regular notes.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've yet to see an algorithm that made music. Interesting bleeps and bloops and little melodies, sure. But music? With expression and meaning? Not really. Algorithmic music quickly sounds aimless and wandering $\endgroup$ – Innovine Nov 7 '16 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ @erik Sure, I wrote music based on markov chains 15 years ago. I stand by what I say, its interesting, but not valuable as music, only as technique. If you listen without knowing and appreciating its an algorithm, its all just a bit meh. Kudos to those working on it, but it's got a ways to go imho. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Nov 7 '16 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Innovine How do you know if every computer doesn't have a burning desire in every core of its CPU to transform the monotony of its clock cycle into something that will resonate with the beings that electrify its soul? $\endgroup$ – Erik Nov 7 '16 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Innovine youtube.com/channel/UCJVYSZHAO2cxKlMivfV0xkQ $\endgroup$ – Brent Nov 7 '16 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ Pink Floyd's Money is primarily composed in 7/4 time and is a rock classic. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_(Pink_Floyd_song) $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Nov 8 '16 at 1:36
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This is actually part of an outstanding question when it comes to aliens. We have some things which we consider so unbelievably fundamental that we are incapable of imagining a sentient species that comes to anything besides the exact same set of conclusions. The problem is, we literally have no idea if that's a limit on our imagination or an actual physical reality.

An interesting example can be put together in reverse: the just intonation and the 12 tone equal temperament. Virtually every instrument made today uses equal temperament. In equal temperament, the notes are arranged logarithmic, with equal spacing between them in log space. By contract, just intonation on ratios of small numbers to put together the scale. The results are similar, but not the same.

Equal temperament is popular for instruments because you can play in many keys and have it sound acceptable in all of them. However, none of their ratios are actually perfect. Each key has a slightly different sound to it due to the slight tuning differences (something which composers take advantage of). This does not happen with just intonation, but any instrument which as specific notes (such as a keyboard or saxophone) can only play in one key. An instrument tuned to one key with just intonation sounds particularly bad when played in a different key. Instruments which do not have specific notes (such as voice and trombone) are unaffected by this, because they can simply slide to the correct just intoned pitch for the current key.

Barbershop quartets rely heavily on just intonation for their particular sound. In fact, one of their trademarks is the "angel's voice," which is an illusionary fifth voice that appears when singing a dominant seventh (a chord known as a "ringing chord"). This apparent voice only appears for instruments using just intonation. A piano, with its equal temperament, will simply not generate the correct harmonics.

So it would be easy to perceive an alien society which, due to a quirk of their environment or biology, focuses heavily on instruments which are not locked to pitches, such as their own voices. Such an alien society, if exposed to one of our symphonies, would feel like the entire musical work was out of tune, from the moment the conductor stepped up onto the pedestal. They would consider our symphonies disharmonious.

Now, if this can be true, it feels very reasonable that the roles may be reversed. Perhaps it is us who are locked into some arbitrary concept of harmony which is not as universal as we see it. Perhaps it will be the alien music which brings in "harmonies" that we simply cannot fathom.

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    $\begingroup$ Most people can't hear the difference. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Nov 8 '16 at 5:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Innovine Exactly. Most people, who have been raised on equal temperament, cannot tell the difference. However, if you were an alien raise on Barbershop quartet music, and nothing else, you'd immediately notice how empty the 7th cords sound when you hear our equal temperament instruments. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 8 '16 at 6:43
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There actually was a recent study that questions even the premise of the question:

I’ve seen a description of how a group of notes is chosen, so the concepts starting with the octave are based on natural phenomena and principles. For example, an object will vibrate with a fundamental note and overtones that are integer multiples of that.

First of all, overtones (or harmonics) are actually a separate topic from the ratio of frequencies used to make notes. Harmonics have to do with the waveform of a single note. Another difference: harmonics are not just about the frequencies, but also about their phase relationships. When you look at notes, you are generally only looking at the fundamental frequency, and their phase relationship is usually random.

Is there another principle that could be used to produce a set of notes, that would be so different as to not sound harmonious to us? (But we would agree that makes sense on paper, and follows from ideas of how materials naturally produce complex timbre)

Yes, and you don't even have to go to aliens for that. Somewhat surprisingly, it appears that even what us humans perceive as discordant varies across cultures. The concept that the perception of harmony is rooted in physics certainly has intuitive appeal, but in reality seems to apply only to Western music.

From: Your culture—not your biology—shapes your musical taste

Listen to the two sound clips above. Chances are, you enjoyed the first one a lot more—and so it is for most people you know. That has led researchers to believe that humans have an innate preference for so-called consonant sounds. But a new study of a remote Amazonian tribe reveals that this preference may not be so innate after all; people who have had no exposure to the outside world think both noises above are equally pleasant. The findings suggest that culture, not biology, determines at least some of our musical taste.

(I can't link to the clips here, but both seem to be electronic sounds of made up of two tones, the first consonant, the second what Westerners would consider dissonant. Both were roughly the same duration and frequency).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is fascinating. Even if it turns out to be untrue for humans, I don't see any reason why it couldn't be true for aliens. $\endgroup$ – TheTermiteSociety Dec 7 '16 at 15:12
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Even recognising something as "notes" in an unfamiliar musical context is tricky. Famously, Ravi Shankar at the Concert for Bangladesh came out, sat down and did some twangy stuff. Then he stopped and the audience applauded. Shankar said, "Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more." What the audience had interpreted as a piece of music was actually just random noise.

Conversely, there is a great deal of mid-to-late 20th-century music (Stockhausen, Messaien, Britten and many others) which is based solidly on the classical scales but sounds to me like random noise, even though it actually is not. For me, it's deeply inharmonious, and to some extent that's the point - it was written to sound that way.

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Pitch is only one attribute of musical notes; intensity and duration are also important, and the use of non-traditional combinations of them can give us quite unusual music. Use of unorthodox bars, such as 5/4, barless music, such as in Plainsong, simultaneous use of different bars, can give an "alien" taste to a musical piece.

But considering only pitch, there are different ways to divide the octave. Western music is already at departure of Pythagorean principles, since the introduction of "temperament", ie, of a regular partition of the octave so that the proportion between two adjacent notes is always the same (which requires irrational numbers, basically 2^(1/12)). And while Western music has used the traditional division of the octave into 12 semi-tones, it is possible to divide it otherwise; Arabic music divides the octave into 24 quarter-tones, Balinese music divides the octave into 9 proportional notes, some Western vanguard musicians have used an octave divided into 19 or 31 steps.

All those developments could be mainstream in "alien music". And even if they divide the octave into 12 steps like us, they could use different subsets of them, just like mediaeval music used different "modes" instead of just "major" and "minor", or like several different folk traditions use pentatonic scales, or like Debussy used a 6-tone scale, or Messiaen investigated "limited transpositon modes", or Schoenberg proposed "dodecafonic" or "serial" music.

Is this "meaningful"? It depends; Wittgenstein (in)famously thought that music ended in Brahms (and even in Brahms, he remarked, he could already hear the "noise of machinery"), so he quite certainly thought Wagner was "meaningless". Is Webern "meaningful"? Penderecki? It probably depends on how much an aesthetical conservative/progressist/reactionary the person being asked is.

And, of course, would aliens conceive of a purely auditive art, or would their "compositions" include visual aspects? Olfative? Tactile?

Would their hearing be in the same wavelenghts as ours, or, like giraffes, they would hear infra-sound? Or ultra-sound? Would they be able to hear dog-whistles? If their wavelenghts are different from ours, we could possibly not even be able to hear their "music".


I see that in other answers and several comments that we are underestimating the diachronic aspect of harmony. Reading this page one would probably get the impression that Earthan music does not use tritones. But the tritone is indeed a central part of all "Western" classic and popular music at least since we started the art of counterpoint. Music made exclusively of perfect fifths and octaves would be unbelievably boring for our ears - might even sound "alien" if we allow the idea that aliens are not necessarily more sophisticated than us. Our notion of harmony requires dissonant intervals, and their resolution into consonances. A classic composer would usually end his pieces by resolving a tritone into a perfect third. So tritones, major sevenths, minor seconds, are all part of our tradition, and we actually require them - as long as are they are in their "right place" - to make sense of a musical piece. We would find a piece that ends in a tritone weird, but not much more weird than a piece without any tritones.

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Although there are physical relationships between frequencies, that isn't music. Scales aren't music either.. western music is very advanced, tonally and harmonically, but that's just one aspect of it.

Perhaps aliens would listen to complicated patterns of clicking sounds and appreciate 35/36 polyrhymic patterns. Or just random clicking, attempting to not have patterns. Or perhaps just the same beeping noise over and over, only at subtly different volume levels, which convey meaning to them...

Maybe their music is made by dragging their claws along a blackboard, with the emotional content determined by how long the music goes on for, with masterpieces resulting in the musician wearing their claws down to stubs and replacement blackboards.

I think its foolish to try to even define our earthly music, nevermind opening the field to aliens, and if we do, my bet is that if we can even recognize it, it'll not have any qualities which we can appreciate as music.

But if they do make music, I hope it sounds like this: https://youtu.be/2S_2r0J7bHo

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It depends on the medium in which they live

If they live in gas, then the physics of sound say it is all about its frequency and its intensity. But of course depending on their biology, they might hear the same sound differently, and interpret it even more differently. Other answers have already talked about this.

Now, if they live in a liquid or close-to-solid medium, sound might acquire another property that is shared by light waves: polarisation. Waves basically have a transverse movement with respect to their direction. Their vibration is not the same whether it is up-down, right-left, diagonal, etc. This could make a complete new world of music, as long as they are able to detect the difference. As humans are not even able to see the polarisation of light, I doubt the polarisation of sound would carry music intelligible to us.

Lastly, if they live in plasma, the physics of sound have also lots of refinements that could turn into some sort of music, but I'm not sure how quite yet.

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Yes

It's alien music. We will find it meaningful, because we will find meaning in it - even if the meaning is, hey - it's alien music! We will pour into that alien music all of our understandings, our hopes, our search for common ground with that alien people, into the music, and it will be meaningful.

Now, will it be pleasant? will it be, ah, intuitive, something we can just pick up on, and listen to and begin to understand? That is a maybe, maybe not. It will depend on the overlap of our senses, the convergent nature of our cultures, the underlying universal principles that the medium of the music is founded on. It will depend on the meaning that the alien species pours into its music (or equivalent). It will depend on the meaning alien-people pour into their music, and it will depend on the meaning that human-people assign to the alien music.

That is the tricky part of the question's answer, by the way, where the mathematics of notes and harmonies will come into play, where any divergence of the species' overlapping senses must show itself, where the physical medium is key, where cultural translations and understandings will be at their most delicately nuanced.

The thing is, people are really good at assigning meaning to things - at discovering meaning. So given any thing that is alien music, that can be called, or assumed to be alien music, people will find or create meaning. People can find meaning in the play of cards or the roll of the dice, in smoke and ash, in clouds, in whale song and groundhog shadows and bird entrails, in anything and everything we can find. Something that a people actually has given intention to (and if it didn't have meaning, we probably wouldn't call it music), of course we will find meaning in it.

Even if it is physically unpleasant, even if it requires significant interpretation, even if the meaning isn't something we can follow unaided - we will know it's there, we will believe it's there, and there will be people who pour their lives into finding and celebrating what that music says to us. There will be connoisseurs and devotees and analysts and students. We may find it meaningful because of its context, rather than in spite of it - but we will find the meaning in it, have no fear.

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Recreational sound is essential for any animal with a large auditory intelligence and an imagination and the ability to control sound production.

1/ would aliens sing? animals and humans sing, depending on their species, lizards don't for example, and the first step towards alien music would be aliens singing. if they are social animals it is likely that they would sing together, and we would find alien song fascinating.

2/ What would humans think of recreational sound from aliens playing with acoustic or digital equipment?!?

It is conjecture wether you would find a particular alien's different musics agreeable or not, but there would be parallel and diverged evolutions of recreational sound styles everywhere in the universe.

Aliens would certainly have invented piano type polyphonic tonal machines, acoustic instruments, drums, strings, metal instruments, and there would be technology aliens with digital sound studios adapted form telecoms equipment.

The Alien could prefer ultrasounds like echolocation, different frequency spreads, atonal, microtonal, animal call music, techno, neo-classical, melodic.

It depends on the Alien, on the whole, some of his music could be awesome, some could be interesting, and some could be boring.

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To a certain extent, this depends on how precisely you define "meaningful". On one extreme, we can consider properties of music that are derived from pure mathematics and physics. A vibrating string will have a waveform composed of a base frequency and its harmonics (to varying degrees). Other waveforms will interfere with this either constructively or destructively.

  • Frequencies that interfere constructively include such things as the octave, the major third, and the major fifth. Merging these with the original signal would result in a wave similar to the original, but with certain components amplified.

  • A set of frequencies that interfere perfectly destructively would cancel out the original signal, resulting in silence.

  • A large set of randomly selected frequencies would mostly cancel each other out, but there would in practice always be some components that don't cancel. The result would be noise, both in the colloquial sense and the information theoretic sense. It's a signal that doesn't contain much meaningful information.

When we then consider that hearing wouldn't evolve for no reason, it stands to reason that any species that does evolve hearing would likely be wired to pay attention to high-information signals. The only one of those three options above that has high information content is the one that we would consider to be harmonious. (There do of course exist more possibilities than just those three, but given a set of signals with the same number of component waves each, there's something of a spectrum, with harmonious signals on one extreme and noise on the other.)

But all that is just operating at the level of individual chords, or possibly separate notes that are close together in time. What of the overall structure of a piece of music? Information theory can still be used to distinguish a series of sounds that were generated by an intelligence from one that is randomly generated or naturally generated; a random signal would contain almost no regular patterns, and thus would be incompressible. A natural signal might contain patterns, but they would (usually) be very simple. A composition might thus be detected by finding patterns that have high information content. (Of course, there would be signals other than music that fit that criteria: language, for instance. But it's a start.)

But would we agree with an alien culture on what constitutes good music? That's the point where things become more culturally dependent; there may be pieces that are brilliant to one culture and garbage to another. This doesn't even require aliens to be true; there's plenty of human music for which the quality is highly subjective. I don't care for Cage's 4'33", for instance. And yet it's been played at least once by every intelligent culture in the universe.

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Given that whale song is music to us humans and we humans can find meaning in passing clouds I'd have to give this an easy yes, if the aliens have talent.

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Aliens would in all likelihood not have music at all.

Music is a security flaw in the human brain which allows outside influences to hack the emotional state of your mind. That's actually a really terrible security flaw, and as such, we should not expect aliens to share it.

In fact, some people have Musical Anhedonia, and do not feel the emotional effects of music like other people. In fact, recent studies have found some indications of differences in how the brains of people with Musical Anhedonia react to music: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/10/28/1611211113.

Given that there seems to be some process in the brain which allows incoming music to control our emotional state, why would we assume that same process also appears in aliens?

On the other hand, since we decided that bird and whales sings, we will probably think the aliens sing. They will wonder what is wrong with us.

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    $\begingroup$ Security flaw or communication channel? Knowing the emotional state of the singer and generally mirroring the emotional state of the tribe doesn’t have to go so far as to force it upon us unwillingly. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 10 '16 at 11:49
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I don't see any reason necessarily why alien music would need to be like ours.

It might not be directly pitch-based in the way that ours is, for a start. If the aliens communicated through pitch, for example (i.e. their language sounded like our music), they might have music that resembled spoken language, perhaps (based on a set of different sound types, rather than different notes).

Even if they had music based on notes, they might not care about pitch relationships in the way we do. They might have a small number of "notes" that can span a signifant range of possible pitches, and would sound completely off-pitch to our ears.

They may not care at all about rhythm, and simply arrange notes one after another with arbitrary or strictly formulaic timing. Or they may deliberately make the rhythm too complicated to consciously resolve into something meaningful, so that the melody is accentuated.

Or perhaps they're a species which is very good - much better than us - at recognising abstract patterns. The patterns in their music might be enourmously complex, or recognising them might only be possible for someone in possession of an elaborate repertoire of meta-knowledge about the typical structures in the alien music, or both.

If they echolocate, or are strongly synesthesiac, their music might be predominently visual in its construction, and only make sense if you're able to associate those sounds with those shapes. All manner of different sorts of patterns could occur, depending on the way these aliens see their world, engage with each other and relate to sound, all of which would be completely foreign to the way we're used to interpreting music.

Of course, with a little patience and mathematical analysis we could find patterns in all these kinds of music, so in a sense we can say yes, we would find it meaningful. But personally meaningful, in the sense of actually enjoying it, I think is very unlikely.

As others have already stated, even within our species, we don't find all music personally meaningful.

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Yes, for the sole fact that music represents culture. Their music would allow us to study their culture and learn from it.

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As long as the range of tones are within Human hearing, then yes I would expect that alien music would be meaningful.

Considering the basic sine wave of the A above middle C, the tone resonants at 440 Hertz. An octave higher is exactly 880 Hertz. Harmony is considered pleasant because the tones interact in a way that combines in a natural feeling way. But there are tones that do not combine well and these are generally considered to be disharmony.

It is possible that alien physiology could find different combinations to be more pleasant than others, but this doesn't discount the ability for us to find meaning in their music.

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There are a lot of reasons alien music might not sound musical to us at all.

Most of us humans can easily tell the difference between a perfect fifth (a 3:2 frequency ratio, about 7 semitones) and a tritone (6 semitones, no exact frequency ratio). A perfect fifth generally sounds beautiful, pleasant, and "consonant", whereas a tritone sounds "dissonant" and often unpleasant.

For some reason, we humans are wired up to enjoy the 3:2 frequency ratio, but aliens might not be. Maybe this is a species where groups of aliens sing in harmony in order to warn of danger and distress. Then the aliens may think that a perfect fifth sounds terrible, but a tritone sounds fine. We might think that their music sounds terrible!

Or the aliens might be incapable of discerning such small differences between pitch intervals. The difference between a tritone and a perfect fifth is only one semitone; maybe the aliens would think that the two intervals sound nearly identical. Their music wouldn't sound any more melodious to us than human speech does.

The perfect fifth could be the only interval that the aliens enjoy. Then all of their music might be based on a constant drone of two notes. We would probably think that this sounds kind of nice, but boring.

The aliens might think that notes sound bad! They could dislike any sound that has a discernible pitch. We may think that their music has pleasant rhythm, but no melody or harmony.

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  • $\begingroup$ The built-in liking for the 3:2 frequency ratio is because a nonlinear system being stimulated by a pure tone will generate that tone's harmonic series, of which the 3rd harmonic (octave plus perfect fifth) is by far the strongest non-octave. And our ears are nonlinear systems. I expect that whatever the differences, most if not all alien music-tonal systems will have identified the perfect fifth as important. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 8 '16 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ The "perfect fifth" we are used to, however, is not a 3:2 frequency ratio. It is a 2^(7/12):2 frequency ratio. It is quite close to 3:2 (3:3 would be 1.5:1; 2^(7/12):2 is an irrational number, approximatedly 1,498307077:1) but it is not what Pythagoras had in mind with his theory (he abhorred irrationals, for starters). $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Nov 8 '16 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @luis_Henrique what you describe is equal temperament of a keyboard or fretted instrument. A choir or string quartet can play perfect harmony in any key. Tonic/ Dominant in such an ensemble is usually closer to perfect than equal temper. The difference is quite subtle and many folks cannot hear it. I don't have space to discuss the complexities of wind instruments! $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 8 '16 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222 Well, yes. A choir or a string quartet can sing/play in Pythagorean harmony - if they are not being accompanied by keyboards, I suppose. But Pythagorean harmony is inconsistent: twelve consecutive perfect fifths should be equivalent to seven perfect octaves, but this only happens in temperament; in Pythagorean harmony you get a proportion of 129.7463:1 instead of 128:1. Pythagoras was acquainted with monophonic music, not complex harmony, so this would be not a real problem; but in a complete orchestra or four-voice chorus, it results in less consonance than the temperate system. $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Nov 10 '16 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Luis_Henrique mathematically correct, but what I'm referring to is natural temperament versus equal temperament. What a choir or unfretted strings will tend to do is play a perfect 2:3 Pythagorean Tonic / Dominant (and a somewhat flattened major third compared to the mathematical one involving a fifth power of three). If the music modulates from the key of (say) C to D, the precise frequency that the choir or string will play for A will become minutely different. Equal temperament is forced with keyboards and fretted strings involved, because they cannot make these adjustments. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 10 '16 at 14:49
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I'm just going to take "music" to mean "the artistic arrangement of sound tones". Our music is calibrated to two main things: the range of human hearing, and the distance between two frequencies that can be detected as two separate "notes". Everything else is artistic.

How we perceive alien music would depend first on how their hearing compares to ours. If their range is wider, a human listener would perceive it with gaps in the sections outside his hearing (if infrasonics are part of it, he might have a negative reaction). If the range is narrower, it would sound "flat" (lacks highs and lows), "bassy" (lacks highs), or "tingy" (lacks lows), depending on the range being used.

Similarly, even if the aliens have a similar frequency range to us, if they have a tone discernment more sensitive than ours (closer-in-frequency notes), what is a richly-nuanced arrangement to them would sound monotone to us. If their discernment is less sensitive (farther-apart-in-frequency notes), then the music would seem to jump wildly and unpredictably around the scale, without the sort of transitions a human listener would expect.

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  • $\begingroup$ There are musical scales in other human cultures which do not divide an octave into twelve, or which do not embrace the concept of key and even temperament (ie, modal). However, the perfect harmonic series is rooted in physics, not in culture. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 8 '16 at 13:03
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Building on what Tanner said:

In Western music we regard a given tone, and the tone with the frequency doubled, to be essentially the same note. This is divided in Western music into a scale where the doubling is achieved in 12 steps.

Now let us postulate an alien race for whom two notes sound the same if one is triple the frequency of the other, and after some experimentation, they divided this frequency space into 19 steps.

The result is a musical system that can use the instruments we use (19/12 almost exactly equals the logarithm of 3 divided by the logarithm of 2), but their music would to us seem to be harshly sharp in its harmonies, whereas ours would seem flat to them.

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  • $\begingroup$ But doubling and all integer multiples is a physical thing, seen in the timbre of vibrating objects. What would make them want to skip the doubled step? What natural sounds are they inspired by? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 9 '16 at 3:13
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We hear by taking chaotic waves and having a narrow cavity where it resonates in. We measure the resonance, and hear an infinite dimension of frequencies. Direction is measured with an asymmetric pair of holes we can move, and know how frequencies are directionally modified by the entrance.

We see by taking chaotic waves and having a pinhole. We then project the waves onto a surface, with sensors that are sensitive to various frequencies. We measure the convoluted sum of the fequencies as color, and use the location of projection to determine direction.

Light waves are shorter wavelength than sound waves. And the physics of detecting each is also different.

Our spatial recognition of sound is poor, and or frequency recognition of light is poor. You could imagine a sufficiently alien species having vision-like spatial and poor frequency resolution on sound waves.

To such a creature, their "music" (physical vibrarion based art) would be more like a painting than a song. If their spatial resolution skills are good enough, it would use ambient vibration to communicate the information (like how very little of our visual artwork glows).

What kind of biology and environment that would permit or promote that might be tricky. But the fundamental possibility is there. And it seems exceedingly unlikely that there are many reachable similar to us (biologically) intelligent creatures in our past light cone (Fermi), but the possibility of extremely different creatures (which might find space travel harder) is unrestricted.

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