I’m reading a very interesting book at the moment; a Christmas gift. It’s a book that speculates on the nature and occurrence of intelligent life in the universe. Essentially, it is an examination of the Fermi paradox: if intelligent life is abundant, why haven’t we heard of it by now? The book asks: is intelligent life rather commonplace, in an entity as unimaginably vast as the universe, in which case there is nothing special about humanity, or is it the case that organisms capable of attempting to understand the cosmos and their significance within it are rather rare and infrequent outbreaks?
Without spoiling the book, whose title I won’t even mention, it appears that the leading theory is that intelligent life only emerges, in the universe, in the fragile, transient, dynamic border between order and disorder. We exist only on the delicate, ephemeral cusp between cosmos (a word meaning “order”) and chaos. Our very existence is so reliant on an unlikely combination of Goldilocks preconditions, that the phenomenon of intelligent life is actually quite sparsely distributed, in the pan-galactic scheme of things. That makes us, as a species, somewhat special. There doesn’t appear to be anything like us within any practical radius of travel from where we perilously survive.
It’s well known, among musicians and music appreciators that the most interesting music exists in the fragile zone between surprise and repetition. Good music requires listener expectations to be both confirmed and confounded. In other words, it’s a balancing act between order and chaos.
These two notions bear some similarity to each other. Both speak of the balance between a too rigid and inflexible set of background conditions and a situation where everything descends into indistinguishable, unintelligible disorder. Music and life exist somewhere between pure signal and pure noise. If you have too much of one, or the other, then both collapse. Life and music both rely on something being shaken up and stirred, but not too much.
Music is lifeless and boring, when produced by machine, to strict rules, with no variation, no sublime morphing of one timbre into another and no deviation from pre-defined structure; but it also becomes lifeless and boring when it is purely chaotic, random, unstructured and relentlessly unpredictable. Life, by way of comparison, cannot exist anywhere in the universe where conditions are too stable, or too unstable. There is a “right” amount of instability required before life can take root and evolve. There is also a “right” amount of variance required before music becomes pleasurable.
The conformity of these two ideas to a single basic concept offers an intriguing possibility: Could music be a form of life, existing on the border between order and disorder? Could good music be an analogue or model for intelligent life in the universe?
By extension, this leads to one more fascinating possibility: Can the study of music composition shed any light on the search for intelligent life in the universe?
Interesting ideas, you have to admit. I also bet you didn’t see this post coming.