Would aliens understand human music?

Listening to people get OpenAI Jukebox continue songs, one is struck by how weird some of its flights of fancy are. Someone wondered what aliens would make of its attempts to make human music:

imagine meeting totally analytical aliens who are only used to math, and helping them understand the concept of human music using this bot… I wonder how it would go, and if they’d be able to understand the emotional meaning…

Al Sebald

Me: Interesting. The pure math of perfect intervals like the frequency doubling of an octave, and the perfect fourth of a fifth ending exactly an octave higher (3/2 x 4/3 = 2!), are independent of culture. They’re not like e.g. letters or counting in 10s. If aliens can hear vibrations, they’ll have music and will be aware of these intervals.

Me: I’m saying their number system might not influence their music, just as our doesn’t, much. If you play one perfect fifth on top of another, eventually you end up at 1.512 = 129.746 times higher frequency, which is almost exactly 7 doublings (octaves) higher; 27 = 128. And if you drop all 13 notes into the same octave range, the intervals between many notes approximate other pleasing relationships like 3:2, 4:3, etc. The way our music combines and sequences notes developed from those relationships, and then Western music mostly settled on making each note exactly 21/12 (the twelfth root of 2) higher, an “equal-temperament” tuning that lets music modulate between any key at the cost of every interval but the octave being slightly off those perfect fractions. Other musical cultures continue to divide the octave into uneven intervals that only sound good in some keys, or divide into 17 intervals (I’m no expert, but e.g. Wikipedia’s Frequently used equal temperament scale).

Maybe aliens don’t hear frequencies the way we do at all, otherwise surely they’ll respond to some of these frequency relationships. Whether they “hear” minor and major the way we do is impossible to tell. If all the aliens’ fleshy vibration organs and their instruments had an 8 octave range (1-256 times frequency) then maybe their music would just jump around all those frequencies instead of humans’ closely spaced dee-doo-doo-dee-dah-dah-dah, and they would think our music is weird. Maybe they have much better absolute time and frequency perception, so all their music is in one key starting at a frequency of exactly 8 trogzomps, and they would think all our key changes are stupid.

It’s fascinating to ponder!

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