Golden records may someday communicate with extraterrestrials

Since their launches in 1977, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft have captured my interest. The Voyager missions gave us stunning, close-up views of the outer planets and provided insights about phenomena at the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 left the solar system in 2013 and is now interstellar, speeding outward through empty space (“to infinity and beyond!”). Voyager 2 is not far behind.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has now left our solar system and moved into interstellar space.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has now left our solar system and moved into interstellar space.

I read an article in last week’s New York Times about the golden phonograph records that accompany these spacecraft on their missions. The records are 12-inch gold-plated copper disks affixed to the vehicles’ frames. The Times article reported that copies of the recordings would be available to the public for purchase next year as a set of vinyl LPs. Cool!

The idea behind the inclusion of the original golden records aboard the Voyager spacecraft is intriguing. The records are meant to serve as a kind of time capsule or message in a cosmic bottle for extraterrestrials who might someday encounter the spacecraft as they journey through space. The late astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan and a team of his associates curated the record content. On short notice, NASA asked Sagan et al. to assemble a variety of images and natural sounds that were representative of Earth. The team compiled images (e.g. DNA structure, a diagram of a male and female, the Taj Mahal), natural sounds (e.g. heartbeat, rocket launch, birds), and greetings spoken by people in 55 ancient and modern languages.

In addition to these, the golden records also include a selection of music. The music features Eastern and Western classics and a variety of songs from eclectic cultures, regions and eras.

The golden record on each Voyager spacecraft contains recorded sounds, greetings and music of earthlings.

The golden record on each Voyager spacecraft contains recorded sounds, greetings and music of earthlings.

Who knows … perhaps a hundred millennia from now, a spacefaring civilization from a faraway solar system will find one of our spacecraft. When they play the golden record, the greetings, sounds, images and music will communicate the story of humanity and our cultures as well as the diversity of life on our planet.

I commend Carl Sagan and his team. The thought and effort that they put into the original compilation are clearly evident. The collection gives a good overview of who we are and what we know. Humanity is depicted as a unified, albeit multifaceted, community.

And I commend NASA for using the golden record initiative to integrate the arts with the sciences. The record is a creative means to not only engage future aliens but also the current public with the space program. When another spacecraft with an interstellar destination will next be launched, I hope we will again affix a golden record to the spacecraft with similar recordings of sounds, greetings and images. We might simply tweak some of the same imagery, add some video clips, and enhance the production quality of the recording.

I feel, however, that we should spend more time thinking about the music content of a future recording. Musical taste is subjective, of course, and is influenced by time and regions. But in my opinion, a re-working of the original selection (see listing below) could better reflect the depth and breadth of human creativity.

What music from Earth would you want a future civilization to hear? Please recommend musical pieces that you think would represent the best of humanity and make an impression with an alien species. In addition to the classics, there has been a lot of great music written since 1977 that could be considered. Use the comments section below to share your opinion. Be thoughtful and don’t indiscriminately add songs to the list. If we add one musical selection, let’s also remove one piece from the original list.

To get things started, I’ll make three suggestions:
1. Replace ‘Johnny B. Goode’ with ‘Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones. (In fact, I had always thought that Satisfaction was already part of the original recording. Apparently it wasn’t.)
2. Replace Louis Armstrong’s ‘Melancholy Blues’ with ‘Night Train’ by the Oscar Peterson Trio. (Night Train is a classic jazz tune.)
3. Replace Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance’ with ‘The Main Theme from Star Wars’, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. John Williams, conductor. (John Williams is our quintessential orchestral composer. How appropriate would it be for an alien to hear the Star Wars theme!)

Those are my thoughts. Thanks for yours. Have fun with this.

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For reference, here are the music selections that were on the original Voyager golden records:

• Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor
• Java, court gamelan, ‘Kinds of Flowers,’ recorded by Robert Brown
• Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle
• Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull
• Australia, Aborigine songs, ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Devil Bird,’ recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes
• Mexico, ‘El Cascabel,’ performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México
• ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ written and performed by Chuck Berry
• New Guinea, men’s house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan
• Japan, shakuhachi, ‘Tsuru No Sugomori’ (Crane’s Nest) performed by Goro Yamaguchi
• Bach, ‘Gavotte en rondeaux’ from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux
• Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor
• Georgian S.S.R., chorus, ‘Tchakrulo,’ collected by Radio Moscow
• Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima
• ‘Melancholy Blues,’ performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven
• Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow
• Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor
• Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano
• Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor
• Bulgaria, ‘Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,’ sung by Valya Balkanska
• Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes
• Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, ‘The Fairie Round,’ performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London
• Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service
• Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen
• China, ch’in, ‘Flowing Streams,’ performed by Kuan P’ing-hu
• India, raga, ‘Jaat Kahan Ho,’ sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar
• ‘Dark Was the Night,’ written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson
• Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet

4 thoughts on “Golden records may someday communicate with extraterrestrials

  1. My daughters would take out Johnny B Goode and replace it with Paul McCartney’s Blackbird and Michael Jackson’s Thriller respectively.

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