Music Among the Stars

Back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I, which is some 14 million miles from Earth.  The super nerds behind the mission stowed two golden records on board.  Those golden records included various selections to represent life on Earth, from “Johnny B. Goode” to nature sounds to classical music.

Over the Labor Day weekend a colleague e-mailed me Classical Archivesweekend newsletter, which includes some musings about why humans developed the ability to create—and their interest in—music.  The newsletter features the blog posts “Can E.T. Carry a Tune?” and “Music for Extraterrestrials… Sampling the Music Selected for NASA’s Voyager I.”

The former explores the possible deep origins of humanity’s music-making abilities.  It posits several theories developed from evolutionary biology.  As  a Christian, I find these explanations ultimately wanting, though they each make interesting points (the second proposed theory, for example, suggests “that music arose because it was a social glue that helped our ancestors bond with one another and with a group”).  Music serves many purposes, even if those purposes are not strictly utilitarian (and even then music can serve that function, such as coordinating workers’ movements via work songs).

Chiefly, though, music is intended to praise God.  Like the other arts, music is God’s grant of a small sliver of His Creative potential to His Creation—Tolkien’s “sub-creation” of Middle Earth serving as a prime literary example.  The highest form of musical expression, then, lifts up songs of praise to God.

A brief personal anecdote on that point, as an aside:  my niece has begun experimenting with the piano, and possesses a very strong ear (which she comes by genetically—we’re a very musical family).  She can play a number of tunes by ear.  One day, however, she was at the piano, doing what young children often do—playing around with different notes in an atonal aplomb.  She then turned to us and said, “I play some songs for God, and some for Jesus, but that song was for God and Jesus.”  Surely God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit savored the childlike faith and praise of that noisome tinkling more than any overwrought power ballad.

The real highlight of the newsletter was the playlist of classical works, recordings of which can be found at Classical Archives (or, if not the same versions as are found on the distant, irretrievable Voyager discs, then similar ones).  The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach alone garners four tracks—appropriate, given that Bach, as a church organist, frequently wrote for the glory of God.

Aliens may or may not exist; if they do, chances seem infinitely small that they will ever stumble upon these gold records (although I like to imagine an alien picking up his space phone, calling his cousin, and saying, “Hey, Breezlebraxmagidthorpe, you know that new sound you been lookin’ for?  Well listen to this!” while Chuck Berry jams out “Johnny B. Goode”).

But God does exist, and He hears it all.  Let’s lift up songs of praise—even atonal ones—to Him.

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