MUSI3038 Methodological Perspectives in Music
Alien Listening – An Intergalactic Music Theory of Everything
Course Type: disciplinary elective for music majors/minors, free elective for others
Prerequisite: MUSI2070 Fundamentals of Tonal Music; and either MUSI2081 Music in Western Culture I or MUSI2082 Music in Western Culture II.
Instructor: Prof. Daniel CHUA
Semester: Second Semester 2023/24
Time: 10:30am-12:20pm, Wednesday
Venue: CRT-11/1 Seminar Room
What can aliens teach us about music? A lot, it turns out. This seminar-style course is based on a book I co-authored with Alexander Rehding – Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth (Zone Books, 2021). If you like music and are interested in big questions—culture, technology, communication, and life beyond humanity—then this course is for you!

In 1977 humans sent a record of our ‘greatest hits ’into outer space. NASA’s Voyager mission included what is known as the Golden Record strapped to the side of the spacecraft, featuring examples of music from a range of cultures across the world—from Azerbaijani mugam to Zaire pygmy songs, from English Renaissance dances to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and from Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry—plus environmental sounds, greetings in 55 earth languages, 116 images of the planet and its inhabitants. The samplings of earthbound auditory culture are on their way into the unknown. The Voyagers left the solar system around 2014.

The Golden Record raises a number of big questions not least about what music is, what it means, and how it is communicated. The vast temporal and spatial distances that it traverses forces us to change our perspective and re-imagine music on a different scale. Is music human? Can other species understand music? What is music made of? Does it come in peace?

In the end, the Golden Record will likely tell us less about aliens than about our own projections and aspirations—and what it means to be human. Even though space travel is unlikely for most of us, we should think deeply about cultural difference and similarities, about the intricacies of communication, and the transformations of cultural products in a global context where we are often alienated from each other. The Golden Record forces us to confront these issues by not allowing us take our humanity for granted. In this vast context, everything from the smallest detail to the most all-encompassing concept needs to be rethought from the ground up.
Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • be familiar with and be able to provide a basic grasp of musical genres and themes as well as major political concepts and ideas of the last two centuries;
  • learn and practice how to craft a thesis and how to form and support an academic argument and to better express ones views in conversation and writing;
  • improve academic writing skills, and in particular bolster awareness and procedures of scholastic citation of primary and secondary sources;
  • cultivate an ability to appreciate the wider social and political significance of music.
Attendance and Participation 10%
In Class Presentations 20%
Short Assignments 30%
Final Project 30%
  • What Is the Golden Record?
  • Are We Alone?
  • What Is Music?
  • Is Music Human?
  • Types of Listening
  • “Species” Counterpoint
  • World Music and Earth Music
  • Intergalactic Music Theory
You can listen to the Golden Record: the entire content is available on YouTube uploaded in multiple versions. NASA also has some excellent documentation on their website: https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record.
  • Chua, Daniel K L and Alexander Rehding: Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth (New York: Zone Books, 2021)
  • Sagan, Carl, F.D. Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, Linda Salzman Sagan. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyages Interstellar Record (New York: Random House, 1978).

  • Scott, Jonathan. The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).
For Fun:
  • Read: Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Watch: Star Trek TV series and films, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.