(Credits: Far Out / NASA / Alamy / YouTube)
Plenty of songs throughout history have gained worldwide notoriety. Whether for their complexity, universal appeal, or sheer catchiness, a few tracks are known from Tokyo to Timbuktu. However, a select few tracks have transcended Earth to become known throughout the entire galaxy.
In 1977, Nasa launched a space probe named Voyager 1. Designed to gather information about the outer solar system and interstellar space, it holds the record for the farthest away a human-made object has gotten from Earth. In addition to its research about interstellar space and the outer solar system, Voyager also hoped to encounter evidence of extraterrestrial life forms.
In an attempt to teach these potential lifeforms about existence on Earth, Voyager 1 contained a kind of musical time capsule on board. The Voyager Golden Records are a pair of phonographic records containing tracks that were meant to sum up the diversity of life on planet Earth. The records, which are constructed from gold-plated copper rather than the usual polyvinyl chloride, contain a mixture of spoken word, classical music and a few pop hits, too.
The record begins with a greeting from Kurt Waldheim, the then-Secretary General of the UN, introducing the alien life forms to the contents of the phonographs. It acts as a shaky start to the record as it makes the assumption that, if alien life forms are encountered, they would be fluent in English. The records generally make quite a few assumptions, the main one being that alien life forms would have the technology and materials needed to play a phonograph record – who knows? Maybe the Martians were already into MiniDiscs by 1977. Luckily, scientists at Nasa had thought of this, including a stylus within the record case as well as a diagram of how to play a phonograph. Sorted.
So, what music was chosen to represent all life on Earth? As you might expect, the track list is made up predominantly of classical music, particularly Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. There are also numerous tracks of indigenous music and traditional folk songs from different cultures around the globe. Carl Sagan, the man responsible for selecting the content for the records, also thought it important to include some popular tracks.
‘Johnny B. Goode’ by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry was included in between a Mexican mariachi track and a recording of a tribal song. Louis Armstrong was also included; his track ‘Melancholy Blues’ is the second track on disc two. Meanwhile, noted blues musician Blind Willie Johnson occupies the penultimate track on the record with ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’. Sagan has confirmed he also wanted to include ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by The Beatles, which makes sense given that the Fab Four were a worldwide phenomenon, but despite the band’s willingness to participate, EMI held the copyright for the track, and they declined to let Nasa use it.
There are a few more non-musical inclusions within the records, including a 12-minute recording of various sounds of Earth – rain, bird song, animal noises, thunder, machinery, etc. It certainly makes interesting listening, sounding more like an ambient or experimental piece released on Bandcamp than a Nasa-backed recording currently exploring interstellar space. The other non-music on the records includes a recording of greetings in 55 different languages.
It is not known whether these records will ever be played or even found. Earlier this month, Nasa confirmed that the space probe is currently experiencing some technical difficulties preventing it from transmitting data back to Earth, so its fate and the fate of the Golden Records remains unknown.
Dr. Thomas Hughes is a UK-based scientist and science communicator who makes complex topics accessible to readers. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.