Why Do Space Programs Keep Sending Music To Space?

Contrary to what we may think, sending songs into space may not be that useful.

As incredible as it may sound, in recent decades, music has traveled across space. Many theories have been developed regarding communication with exterior life forms, and to prove them, scientists have sent songs into the universe. But up until now, none of them has been proven or denied. The thing with space related topics is that we know so little about something so big that there are many questions still unanswered. This is why scientists and researchers around the world constantly come up with new ideas and projects that attempt to give us a clearer image of the “big picture.”

The first time music was sent to space was in 1965, when two astronauts aboard the Gemini VI performed “Jingle Bells” with a harmonica and hand bells they hid for this purpose. Even though they were the first ones to literally take music to space, they’re not the most memorable case, because shortly after that, music took a huge leap forward in this matter.

Golden Records was the name of this ambitious space project, curated by the American astrophysicist and writer, Carl Sagan. In 1977, phonograph records with lots of songs (and others sounds) were sent into space, hoping to represent planet Earth through different ways: music, animal sounds, and people talking. The records included instant classics from Chuck Berry, Bach, Stravinsky, and many more. These records were sent alongside a message from the president of the US at that time, Jimmy Carter:

“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.”

Jumping back to more recent years, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also shared some love for music in outer space. For the expedition 35 to the International Space Station in 2012, Hadfield picked up a guitar some astronaut fellow left there before. He actually recorded the first song ever in space, and uploaded it to YouTube. Needless to say, his video became insanely viral.

And last but not least, this year, the Spanish music festival Sónar celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary by making a transmission to space with eight song fragments (played at the event) of 10 seconds each. The signal was sent to a planet that’s about 12 light years away from here. Hoping to get some kind of answer in return, this transmission will be held again next year. These are very different but interesting ways to take music out there. But as I’m reading them, I can’t help but think: is this effort worth it? Is someone or something going to hear this sound material? To answer this question, we must understand first how music flows in space.

Sound itself moves in the shape of waves, which need a medium in order to travel, let’s say speakers or a pair of headphones. Without this medium, the waves can’t travel, and music can’t be heard. Because of this, it may get complicated for extraterrestrial life to listen to us because, unless there’s a medium to propagate everything that has been put out there, no one will ever receive the sound waves properly. But, here’s when other kinds of wave can do the trick. Electromagnetic (EM) waves are not sounds, but they can travel through the scary vacuum of space. Everything related to telecommunications is a very good example of these waves. Being that they can propagate easily and be traced as sound, scientists have found a way to transform sound itself into EM waves; this way, music will be able to travel across the universe freely.

Now let me explain to you why I think these music messages are pointless. Even if people at NASA managed to find a way to send music to specific spots in the universe, there is no way to be sure whether the message was received by someone or something. And even if it was received, why are we assuming these beings will know what to do with it? Will they have ears? Will they even care about this? Probably not. This is why this music project, while heartwarming, is actually really self-centered.

Sending music into space can be seen from two points of view: scientists are still trying to find a way to communicate with other lifeforms, and music works as a perfect tool to do so. But there’s also the presumptuous side of it. As humans, we’re trying to impose ourselves even at the furthest corners of the universe, like we're claiming those parts before any else does. We are literally assuming a lot from outer existence: how they're like, what they look like, how they exist, where, and since when.

There are still so many questions to be answered, so it’s really close-minded to think other living beings will be even remotely like us. Yet we're constantly sending more and more signals, waiting for a response. If we keep doing it this way, will we ever get an answer in return?


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Photo Credit:

Eric Nopanen

Greg Rakozy