One of mankind’s greatest technological achievements is currently to be found about 18 billion kilometers from the Earth outside the solar system.
Launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977 the robotic space probe Voyager 1 is the farthest human made object and more distant from the sun than any known natural object of the solar system. Furnished onto the space probe is a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk, also known at The Golden Record. Complete with a cartridge, needle and a cover with symbolic instructions on how to play the record, it is intended for deployment by intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Cardinally, The Golden Record is a monument for life on earth and the human species.
Encoded onto the disk is an eclectic mix of images, sounds of the earth and 26 musical pieces. Compiled by American astronomer and novelist Dr. Carl Sagan, these musical pieces – ranging from Beethoven to Chuck Berry – were chosen to display an excerpt of the cultural achievements of the human species.
Music as a cultural practice is assumed to have a pre-historic origin. In 2009 archeologists have found a 35.000-year old flute in a cave in Germany, which presumably has been played by the first modern humans as they began to colonize Europe. According to neuroscientists, making and ‘understanding’ music is an intrinsic ability of the human species and can be directly linked to our ability to process and use language.
Throughout history, changes in practice, perception and distribution of culture paralleled social, political, economic and – crucially – technological developments. With these changes, the functionality of music has constantly evolved. In the 19th century for example, chamber music was the only way of enjoying music outside of huge concert halls, it was composed specifically for a small number of performers. Music was a social event, something to engage in and to be appreciated.
With the advent of radio and then later, mass-produced sound carriers, music had taken on a different functionality: It could now be enjoyed at home on the stereo whenever you wanted to, you didn’t have to have musicians in your house or engage in playing an instrument yourself to be able to listen to music. Collecting physical sound carriers became a part of youth culture.
The medium itself determines the way we listen to music as each creates its own rituals. For instance, vinyl LPs really stressed the idea of an album, a coherent collection of songs, carefully sequenced and boxed in cardboard with artwork on it. This pattern was broken with for the first time with the advent of the CD: It was now made easy to have a non-linear listening experience as CDs allowed you to skip/repeat tracks.
With MP3s and MP3-players, smartphones and streaming services, music is now completely decontextualized – not only from the physical sound carrier and the album format but also from time and space. We can now listen to anything from anywhere and from any time.
As a music fan, it’s very easy to be pessimistic about these developments: Music has become the soundtrack for our way to work or to the supermarket, it requires little to no engagement and it is in constant competition with other stimuli. As a result of all of this the meaning and functionality of music has once again changed.
One thing is very clear though: People will never completely stop to listen to or make music and it very interesting to think about how digital media technology will eventually reciprocate on the creation of music or music forms itself. Just like multi-track recording and the (vinyl-) album-format gave birth to works like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds something will eventually evolve out of these new technologies that will push the boundaries of what we conceive music as.
Most likely, this new form of music will co-exist with the then traditional ways of making music.
I don’t think it’s around the corner, and of course it’s all a matter of speculation because as media theorist Friedrich Kittler puts it: “Understanding media remains an impossibility because the dominant information technologies of today control all understanding and its illusions.”