Lecture: Listening to Alien Listening, Professor Lawrence M. Zbikowski


Location: 306 O'Neill Hall

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In their recent book Alien Listening Daniel Chua and Alexander Rehding venture into the vast and unfamiliar reaches of exomusicology. What, they wonder, would an intergalactic music theory of everything look like? In this paper, I join them—if briefly—on their adventure, but only to point out that, whatever desires for interplanetary musicological exploration they may harbor, they have actually never left Earth. Indeed, I shall argue that even when humans endeavor to send their music out into space through technology—as they did with the golden record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, an artifact that inspires and frames Chua and Rehding’s book—music remains obstinately anchored to Earth along with the humans who launched the spacecraft. To make my argument I will set the ambitions of Alien Listening against my own recent exploration of the features of human nature that make musical thought possible. As shall emerge, these features have less to do with listening as such and more to do with how sound is used to shape humans’ social interactions.

Lawrence M. Zbikowski is the Addie Clark Harding Professor of Music and the Humanities
and chair of the Department of Music at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since
1993. His research focuses on the way musical understanding is shaped by humans’ cognitive
capacities, articulated through studies of musical grammar, language-music relations,
connections between music and movement, and musical analyses. This research has been
brought together in Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis (2002),
which explores the cognitive bases of musical thought, and Foundations of Musical Grammar
(2017), which describes how humans’ unique ability to correlate sounds with dynamic processes
provides the basis for the construction of meaningful musical utterances.