This episode was written and produced by Leigh McDonald.
In the late '70s, NASA launched Voyagers 1 & 2 to explore the furthest reaches of our solar system and beyond. But something amazing was included on those space probes... a 90-minute time capsule of sounds, language, and music from Earth called The Golden Record. Its intended recipient? Any intelligent extraterrestrial life that might stumble upon it. What did Carl Sagan and his team put on the record to represent all of humanity? How would aliens decode it?
For the first time ever, the album will be deconstructed track-by-track. Featuring Tim Ferris and Linda Salzman Sagan, two pioneers behind the record.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Polaris by SVVN
Silence by David A Molina
Who am I by Dario Lupo
Closing Rhyme by Chad Lawson
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.
Follow the show on Twitter & Facebook.
Become a monthly contributor at 20k.org/donate.
If you know what this week's mystery sound is, tell us at mystery.20k.org.
Get your copy of the Voyager Golden Record at ozmarecords.com.
View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: record needle going on to record, scratchy start
Kurt Waldheim [1-01]: As the Secretary General of the United Nations, who represents almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet.]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.
[Clip continues - Kurt Waldheim [1-01]: We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking on peace and friendship. To teach if we are called upon. To be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of this immense universe that surrounds us. And it is with humility and hope that we take this step.]
That was Kurt Waldheim, the fourth Secretary-General of the UN. And what you just heard is the first track from the most epic album of all time. It was made by a team of scientists, artists, and historians hoping that one day other intelligent life forms might find it. It’s the Voyager Golden Record. It’s also a time capsule, and there’s actually two of them. They’re currently over 11 billion miles away, hurtling through space at over thirty thousand miles an hour.
These literal golden records are attached to the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. These probes were launched in the late seventies and today they are farther away from earth than any other human-made object. The Voyager probes could continue to explore worlds unknown for more than a billion years. So, there is a theoretical chance that alien life could find one of these probes.
In the seventies a committee chaired by Carl Sagan curated a record to ride on each craft. Here’s Carl talking about the record on the original COSMOS television series.
[Carl Sagan: A phonograph record, golden, delicate, with instructions for use. And on this record are pictures, sounds, greetings, and an hour and a half of exquisite music, the earth’s greatest hits, a gift across the cosmic ocean from one island civilization to another.]
Recently, Ozma Records has re-pressed the Voyager Golden Record using the original master tapes. Before then, no one on earth could hear the Golden Record in context. But now, we’re going to explore it together, track-by-track.
Kurt Waldheim, who you heard at the beginning of the episode, is track 1 of the record. He greeted whoever might find this record on behalf of all humanity. Here’s track 2, which are hellos and greetings in 55 languages.
[SFX 1-02: Greetings in 55 Languages]
Linda: I think it was an amazing project.
That’s Linda Salzman Sagan, she was in charge of organizing all of these greetings. She was married to Carl Sagan at the time the records were made. Their son, Nick Sagan was recorded for the English greeting when he was just 6 years old.
Linda: Nick gave the greeting in English, and we never told him this. He just said “hello from the children of planet earth” and that was his greeting.
Linda: I get choked up when I think about it. I kind of appreciate his wisdom. That he made a special greeting. He’s a very remarkable young man.
[SFX 1-02: Hello from the children of earth]
The greetings continue into track 3. This time it’s from more members of the United Nations.
[SFX 1-03: UN greetings in several languages]
The UN greetings on this track are mixed with another sound: humpback whale songs.
[SFX 1-03: UN greetings mixed whale songs]
And by the track’s end, the whale songs are the only sounds left.
[SFX 1-03: Just whale songs]
The choice of Whale Songs was deliberate. Carl Sagan believed they carried a lot of information - just like human speech.
[Carl Sagan: If I imagine that the songs of the humpback whale are sung in a tonal language, then the number of bits of information in one song is about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.]
If this record is found by intergalactic life, it’s possible they could understand a whale’s song just as well as they could understand human speech.
That brings us to track 4, “The Sounds of Earth.”
[SFX 01-04: Sounds of Earth]
This is a 12 minute sound essay that depicts the history of our planet. The first part is known as “the Music of the Spheres”. It’s a sonic representation of the planets in our solar system rotating around the sun. The music is composed mathematically - each planet is given its own frequency. The highest pitch is Mercury. The lowest is Jupiter.
Timothy Ferris and Ann Druyan led the production of the sound essay. They wanted to present an evolution of our planet. So next comes the sound of thunder, volcanoes, bubbling lava - this is prehistoric earth.
Each minute of the track takes us through thousands of years of planetary development. From the birth of life on earth, to the modern day, and beyond. Linda also helped collect many of these sounds.
Linda: When we were going to actually record sound. I think Ann suggested that we try to do it in an evolutionary way. So I went to a professor at Columbia who specialized in anthropology and I got the sound of him striking a flint. You know there was a sense of wonder to it and a sense of the ridiculous and the sublime.
[SFX 01-04: Sounds of Earth]
About halfway through we hear the first signs of human life:
[SFX 01-04: Sounds of Earth continue underneath VO]
A heart beat…[SFX] Footsteps…[SFX] The first tools….[SFX] Then modern tools...[SFX] Transportation….[SFX] The launch of a spacecraft...[SFX]
The last human sound is a recording of Ann Druyan’s brain activity. The hope was that extraterrestrials might be able to decode that data, and read her thoughts.
Timothy: It's an odd idea to think about whether alien civilization can make sense of an EEG but, one doesn't know.
That’s Timothy Ferris, who produced the Golden Record.
Timothy: You know when you play a piece of music for someone, you don't know what they're gonna make of it exactly. If you're playing it for them you hope they'll find something rewarding in it.
Timothy: But, I suppose that's the idea behind the Voyager record is that if someday far away in space and time you come across this thing, we hope it's meaningful to you in some way.
The essay ends with the sound of a pulsar [SFX]. The patterns of this sound, plus the image of pulsars on the cover of the record, can be used to calculate time and distance in space. It comes together as a map of Earth’s location in the Galaxy.
Timothy Ferris also led music selection for the record. Which brings us to track 5. This is the “Brandenburg Concerto” by J.S. Bach.
[Music 1-05: Brandenburg Concerto]
Timothy: I was concerned to represent some music that has strong mathematical foundations because we might well be communicating with creatures who don't have hearing or don't have hearing in the range or whose timescale is different so that our rhythms might not make sense. None of us imagined that aliens would be like us and that they would lounge back and listen to the music and experience it the way we do.
Timothy: So, I was interested in finding relationships in the music that would make sense even if you were just mathematically analyzing it. And, there are some pieces by Bach and Beethoven that are there for that purpose.
In addition to mathematical principles, Timothy also wanted to find songs that could properly introduce us.
Timothy: Much of the time, though, we were just including pieces because they were heartbreakingly beautiful and we thought they represented our human values.
Next up is track 6. It’s an Indonesian folk song called “Ketawang Puspawarna.”
[Music 1-06: Ketawang Puspawarna]
The piece is an introduction for a prince. The lyrics name different flowers. Each symbolizes a spiritual or philosophical state. Apparently, this was a favorite of Carl Sagan.
Timothy: Carl Sagan and I were friends. We both had a particular interest in extraterrestrial intelligence. How, really, would you communicate with an alien intelligence in the distant future was of great interest to us. Music was settled on quite early, to make a record with music and then we realized you could put other things in the grooves too, and so we had natural sounds and greetings and the photos and all.
Timothy: Two of my deepest interests in life had always been science and astronomy, the universe as a whole on the one hand and music on the other. So, here was the chance to bring the two together.
Determining which songs represent humanity best is an enormous task. Tim, Carl, and others listened together to album after album. At one of these gatherings they found track 7, “Cengunmé.” It’s a percussion song from Benin, a nation in Africa.
[Music 1-07: Cengunmé]
Timothy: The listening sessions themselves were great. A lot of 'em were done in my apartment in New York. At that time I was, among other things, a music critic and had thousands and thousands of LPs lining the walls and a good stereo. Which is what people used to do in those days, they’d just sit and listen to music on a stereo.
It would have been incredible to attend these listening parties. Imagine listening to music with the greatest scientific minds, trying to figure out what music should be on intergalactic greatest hits record.
Track 8 is “Alima Song” This piece is performed by the indigenous people in the rainforests of the Congo.
[Music 1-08: Alima’s Song]
This song is followed by “Australia Barnumbirr and Moikoi Song.” Track 9 sounds like this:
[Music 1-09: Australia Barnumbirr (Morning Star) and Moikoi Song]
Which is followed by track 10, “El Cascabel,” a Mariachi song.
[Music 1-10: El Cascabel]
Timothy: You have to consider the dynamic you're in if you're going to make a brief collection. 90 minutes from all the music on Earth, then you are automatically going to exclude almost all of the great music because there's so much of it. We could have done a Voyager record every year over the past 40 years and they'd all be terrific. It's not as if you're gonna run out of great music.
Timothy: We tried to get music from all around the world, not just from the culture that had created the spacecraft.
Timothy: You end up really with one piece representing each kind of thing. The one rock track on the record is “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
Here’s track 11.
[Music 1-11: Johnny B. Goode]
Timothy also used some creative engineering to get as much music as possible onto the record.
Timothy: The disc is the size of a record that use to be recorded at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. I cut the Voyager record to half speed so that we could have twice the content. This took our high end response down from around 18,000 hertz to around 12.5 [SFX: “Johnny B. Goode” adjusts to 12.5 hertz], somewhere in there. I figured a little bit of high end loss was a good trade off for doubling the information content of the record.
This doubled space allowed for even more diversity and culture onto the record. Like track 12, “Mariuamangɨ,” a traditional folk song from New Guinea.
[Music 1-12: Mariuamangɨ]
Track 13 it “Sokaku-Reibo.” This Japanese folk song is played on a bamboo flute. Its title means “Depicting the Cranes in their Nest.”
[Music 1-13: Sokaku-Reibo (Depicting The Cranes In Their Nest)]
Next up is track 14. It’s from the Baroque period of Western European music. This is “Partita for Violin Solo No. 3 in E Major” by J. S. Bach.
[Music 1-14: Partita for Violin Solo No. 3 in E Major]
Timothy: Music means a lot to us and I would be surprised if something like music didn't mean a lot to at least some other intelligent species. The fact that it is non-specific and yet communicates something to everyone.
Track 15 moves us forward in history, to the Classical period. This is from the Mozart Opera, “The Magic Flute”
[Music 1-15: The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)]
Timothy: There's something fundamental about rhythms that it's difficult to imagine any intelligent species not having some familiarity with. I thought music was a good way of, maybe communicating isn't perhaps the right word but memorializing the human species.
Track 16 is an ancient drinking song from the country of Georgia. It dramatizes preparing for battle.
[Music: 1-16: Chakrulo]
We’re now halfway through the Voyager Golden Record. At the end of one side of a record, there are wide grooves that catch the needle. These are known as the “take out grooves” or “run out grooves”.
Popular bands sometimes used to leave secret messages hand etched in between these grooves.
Timothy: So, I had composed a dedication and cleared it with the other members, which was "To the Makers of Music, all worlds, all times." When the record was completed and was sent to NASA there's something called a Compliance Officer whose job it is to make sure that every part going on to a spacecraft meets exact specifications. When the Compliance Officer checked The Voyager record here was this handwriting and there was nothing about that in the blueprints, so he rejected the part.
So with the project near completion, a simple hand written message almost derailed the entire thing. We’ll flip the record to Side B and finish the story, after the break.
11 billion miles from here, the twin Voyager spacecraft carry golden records. These discs are time capsules - memorials of our global culture. But a tiny visual detail of the record almost stalled the entire project.
Here’s Timothy Farris again.
Timothy: We went through an anxious week or two when NASA was preparing a blank disc to replace the ones we had worked so hard on for fear that the non-standard part might threaten the launch. Carl had to go to the head of NASA to get a waiver. His argument was that this would be the sole example of human handwriting on the spacecraft and that argument carried the day. So, it was with a certain amount of relief that Carl and I and our collaborators watched the launch of the first of the two Voyagers down at the Cape because there were times when we weren't sure it was going to work out at all.
Thankfully it did work out. So it’s time to flip the record.
[SFX: Record flip, needle drop]
[Music 2-01: Roncadoras and Drums]
This song, “Roncadoras and Drums,” is track 17. It’s from the Ancash Region of Peru.
The Voyager probes were launched in 1977. Compared to the spacecraft of today, they used simple technology. So NASA engineers had to use special techniques to reach deep space.
Timothy: The Voyagers are accidentally interstellar. They used a sophisticated technique to fly past the giant planets; Jupiter, Saturn, on out to Uranus and Neptune in such a way that they were able to accelerate to ever higher velocities. So their velocities exceed the escape velocity of the solar system. That means they'll leave the Sun and our planets behind forever and drift in the Milky Way Galaxy. Because they're going to last so long in space, a billion years is the lower bound on their likely lifetime, it seemed appropriate to put some kind of time capsule aboard the craft.
Each probe travels in a completely different direction. Their billion-year journey is likely to be lonely, It’s fun to imagine a lonely spacecraft drifting through space to track 18, “Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Seven.
[Music 2-02: Melancholy Blues]
Next is track 19 “Muğam”by Azerbaijani musician Kamil Jalilov.
[Music 2-03: Muğam]
Both Voyagers are now interstellar. That means they’ve completely left our solar system. They are the first and only human-made objects to do so.
The Voyagers will fly on for a billion years, but unfortunately they won’t function for that long. Soon, scientists may have to start shutting down instruments to try and save power. They still send data back to Earth each day. But eventually the probes will go dark, and become hunks of metal hurtling through the void.
This is Carl Sagan again.
[Carl Sagan: We do not know whether there are other space faring civilizations in the Milky Way. If they do exist, we do not know how abundant they are, much less where they are. But there is at least a chance that sometime in the remote future one of the Voyagers will be intercepted and examined by an alien craft.]
The Voyagers’ themselves will die. But their mission won’t.
So , back to the music - track 20 is from a ballet, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
[Music 2-04: The Rite of Spring]
By the way, when this was premiered in Paris in 1913 - people rioted - this was not what they expected from a ballet.
The next piece, track 21, is prelude and fugue no. 1, from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.
[Music 2-05: The Well-Tempered Clavier]
And coming up next is track 22.
[Music 2-06: Symphony No. 5]
An epic symphony for an epic journey. This is Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”.
This music sounds familiar to us, but we really have no idea what aliens might make of it. If they can hear like we do at all, they might only be able to hear the higher frequencies...
[SFX: Symphony No. 5 high frequency]
Or maybe the low frequencies...
[SFX: Symphony No. 5 low frequency]
Or maybe they’ll interpret the grooves of the record in a totally different way, and they won’t hear music at all….
[SFX: Symphony No. 5 vibrations only]
Seems like miscommunication is a big possibility. Could we anger aliens with the Golden record? Track 23 is “Izlel E Delyo Haydutin.” This Bulgarian folk song is about an unkillable rebel hero.
[Music: Izlel E Delyo Haydutin]
Could aliens interpret this as a threat?
Timothy: I never took that part of it very seriously, the idea that we'd somehow be threatening someone. There is just nothing in the history of human species or any other relatively intelligent species to suggest anything of the sort. So, I saw no reason to get into such considerations in making the Voyager record.
The Voyager Gold Record is truly a message of peace. Much of the music is friendly and joyful.
Next up is track 24. It’s a Navajo Night Chant called the “Yeibichai Dance.”
[Music 2-08: Navajo Night Chant]
Track 25 is “The Fairie Round,” by British composer Anthony Holborne.
[Music 2-09: The Fairie Round]
Track 26 is from the Solomon Islands. It’s name, “Naranaratana Kookokoo,” which translates to “The Cry of the Megapode Bird”.
[Music 2-10: Naranaratana Kookokoo]
If he had to do it all over again, Timothy says he would still use a record over newer, digital technology.
Timothy: People say "Well, with digital technology, we could include so much more information" but more isn't necessarily better. A 12-hour feature film is not necessarily better than a two-hour feature film. So, just shoveling large amounts of data in to a time capsule does not necessarily create a work of art. With the Voyager record, we were interested in creating a work of art.
There’s also the question of durability. Remember these records are supposed to last 1 billion years. They’re not vinyl records, like you’d find at home on your shelf. The Voyager Golden records are made of copper and plated in gold.
Timothy: If I were doing the Voyager record today, I would use exactly the same technology because I can warrant that the information on that disc will last for a very long time. There is no digital medium that would give me the same assurance. So, the technology of making the record, I would have done the same. That would probably be a little harder to do today than it was in the '70s when that was the universal industry standard.
Track 27, “Wedding Song,” is a Peruvian folk song. The young woman singing the song laments marrying too young. It’s a haunting melody.
[Music 2-11: Wedding Song]
Track 28 is “Liu Shui.” The title means, “Flowing Streams,” in Mandarin. It captures the feeling of ever-moving water.
[Music 2-12: Liu Shui]
The Voyager craft will flow through space almost endlessly. And possibly long after we’re gone.
Timothy: I have no way to estimate the odds that the record would ever be encountered by an alien civilization. There's so many variables. We don't yet know at what rate intelligence emerges on planets that have life. I imagine that life itself is fairly widespread in the universe.
Timothy: Another big variable is we don't know how long intelligence typically lasts. A powerful species, technologically powerful species like ours might still be here in a hundred thousand years or it might not.
Timothy: You then get to the question of how many of those intelligent species get involved in space exploration or wire up a whole part of the galaxy so that they would even be able to detect something like Voyager. We don't know that either. The Voyager probe would be pretty easy to pick up. It doesn't look like a space rock. Discovering its out there in the first place, though, is pretty much a random chance.
The next track, track 29, “Jaat Kahan Ho.” from India.
[Music 2:13 - Bhairavi: Jaat Kahan Ho]
The Voyagers will travel huge scales of time and distance, truly entering the unknown. Carl Sagan talks about this in his book, Pale Blue Dot.
Quote - “Perhaps no one in five billion years will ever come upon them. [In that time] the evolution of the Sun will have burned the Earth to a crisp or reduced it to a whirl of atoms.
Far from home, untouched by these remote events, the Voyagers, bearing the memories of a world that is no more, will fly on.”
[Music 2-14: Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground]
We’re nearing the end of the record. This is the second to last the track on the record. Track 30.
Timothy: My very first suggestion was the track, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a field recording from decades ago in the American South.
This song is about enduring a cold night with nowhere to sleep.
Timothy: Everything on the Voyager project was both personal and universal. We're trying to represent the whole human species. The first meeting we ever had on the Voyager record, I proposed two goals. The first that we try to be as inclusive as possible.
Timothy: And second, that we make a good record.
[Music 2:15 - String Quartet No. 13: in B-Flat Major, Opus 130: V. Cavatina]
The final track, track 31, is Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 13: Cavatina”.
This record is about humans. It could be our first introduction to alien life - or, It could become the only remaining evidence of our existence. Or, it might just be for us.
Linda: You know Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge. There's a certain wonderfulness that this project was wrapped up in.
Timothy: The Voyager record says about humanity that however limited or small or primitive we may be or have been when we made the record, we had the imagination and the intellect to think about scales of time and space far beyond our own.
The Voyager Golden Record will circle our Galaxy essentially forever. That means there is plenty of time for it to be found - If there is anyone out there to find it.
It’s message may not be understood, but it’s intent may be. The Voyager Spacecraft itself is a message to the cosmos, it simply says “we are here, and we are listening”.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by Leigh McDonald...and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.
Thanks to science writer Timothy Ferris. Timothy was the lead producer on the Voyager Golden Record. You can find him online at timothyferris dot com. Thanks also to artist and writer Linda Salzman Sagan.
We absolutely couldn't have made this episode without Ozma Records. They recently repressed the Golden record from the original master tapes. For 40 years before that, no one on Earth could listen to it. It also comes with an incredible book that I keep in my own studio. It outlines the history of the project in much greater detail than we had time for. It also includes all of the photos that were on the record. Go buy it at Ozma Records dot com. Thats, O-Z-M-A records dot com.
The non-Golden Record music in this episode was from Musicbed. Find out more at musicbed.com
Lastly, what would you include on a contemporary Voyager Golden Record? Let us know what music and sounds you’d choose on Facebook, Twitter or by writing hi at 20k dot org.
Thanks for listening.