I’m sure that everyone has thought about space at some point in their life. I myself dreamed of one day going to the moon when I was younger, but the one thing that I always found myself thinking about, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one, was whether or not there was life out there aside from us humans.
Are their aliens out there? What do they look like? Where do they come from? These are all questions that we ask ourselves whenever we look up at the stars, but there’s one question that I’m sure almost no one has asked. What would alien music sound like and could we even comprehend it if we heard it? Well, Vincent Cheung may have an answer to that.
Cheung, a doctoral student at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, investigated non-local dependencies to determine how the human brain processes music in general. In language and music, dependencies are conceptual threads that bind two sentences, words, or verses together, meaning that non-local dependencies combine two non-adjacent items. For example, a song’s second verse after a chorus would have a non-local dependency with the first verse. Cheung, along with Angela Friederici, Stefan Koelsch, and Lars Meyer, studied this phenomenon and discovered that most composers use such devices to build up the listeners expectations and emotions to the music.
In order to discover how a brain can recognize and process these patterns, Cheung turned to the findings of a famous French physician, Paul Broca. Through his work with aphasic patients in the 1800s, Broca discovered a small area of the cerebral cortex, just above the temple on the left side of the brain, that is critical speech production and language processing. Neuroscientists believe that the right hemisphere equivalent to this area, named Broca’s Area after its founder, must play a similar role, but are uncertain of what it processes. One particular theory believes that this area processes music instead of language, something that Cheung took great interest in.
While Cheung does not have access to music from a distant world, he created a novel ‘genre’ which is described as “randomly generated combinations of tone-triplets that were combined in a palindrome-like manner” for his test. This genre’s sound was, oddly enough, both unappealing and pleasing to the ear with its unorthodox musical grammar. Many composers and musicians were brought in to listen to the sound and attempt to determine its grammatical rule, or how the music’s sound makes sense from a listener’s point of view.
Once this ‘rule’ was learned, the participants of this study performed the same task in an MRI scanner in order to find which area of the brain were used. The researchers found that the inferior frontal gyrus, the area of the brain that housed the Broca’s Area (on the left side only), on the right side of the brain, the area that is believed to process musical language, activated during sequences that were ungrammatical, or possessed a violation in musical grammar. This suggests that it is indeed this unknown area in the brain is capable of processing the language of music.
While there has been no evidence of life on other planets, let along music, Cheung believes that we would be able to at least be able to communicate via music. I always heard that music is a universal language, but I never thought that it could literally be just that. So, when and if that day comes when the aliens arrive, we will have at least some way to communicate with our otherworldly brethren.