Final Frontier: Musical Enculturation and the Main Theme of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

In which aliens make use of the Pentatonic Scale (briefly) and Daniel shouts at the television (for a long time).


To my dear reader,

Many things anger me. Incompetence angers me. Casual misogyny angers me. Incorrect punctuation angers me. But one specific thing that recently angered me was the 1977 science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

This Steven Spielberg film concerns typical Midwestern American husband/father/handyman Roy Neary, and the mysterious appearance of unidentifiable aircraft across the U.S. Over the course of the movie, scientists (of which Neary is not one) discover that the aircraft are alien spaceships attempting to communicate with mankind through music. One musical theme in particular acts as the basis both for the human-alien communication and for much of John William’s film score, including the Main Theme. At the end of the film, the humans and aliens finally meet, and (for no reason at all), the aliens take an enthusiastic Neary with them as they leave Earth.

Many things in this movie infuriated me, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Throughout the movie, objects and people that have mysteriously vanished begin reappearing. Presumably, the aliens are… dropping them off (?)… on Earth after having abducted them, but at no point is this explicitly said, and if so, no one seems too irked with the aliens for theft and kidnapping.
  • Halfway through the movie, Neary has become so obsessed with the UFOs that his wife forces their children to run away with her. This is, admittedly, understandable, but what is not understandable is the fact that after this, Neary no longer mentions them, and when the aliens take him onto their ship, he has no qualms about leaving behind a wife and two sons for an undetermined amount of time. Why didn’t Spielberg just make Neary single?
  • The female lead of the movie (who, like many female leads, is just there to scream and be a romantic interest for the male lead) has a small son that the aliens (for, again, no reason at all) keep trying to kidnap (again, at the end, no one seems upset by this). Unfortunately, not only is the mother flat, but her child is, unrealistically, either mildly interested or downright delighted when an enormous, bright, loud spaceship kidnaps him. Has Spielberg never met a child? Most children would just scream, cry and pee. Unless this child is secretly an alien in disguise, he is not convincing me.

Of all the things that angered me, however, foremost among them was the fact that the aliens communicated through music we would understand – and, more specifically, through music we could put in European, classically-based terms. To assume that aliens would have the same comprehension of music as humans takes enormous arrogance. It takes even greater arrogance to assume that they would shape music like that of the Western classical canon. A (Western classical) music theory teacher I once has told me that, while teaching in Vietnam, his students struggled to understand Western tuning systems and scalesbecause their culture had different tuning systems and scales.

So much of what Westerners take for granted musically is enculturated – it’s not intrinsically true to music, but has been taught so thoroughly and bound so tightly into our musical culture that we assume it to be true for all music. Even just semitones – an aspect of music that, arguably, fundamentally drives harmonic motion in Western music – was uncomfortable and unpleasant to these Vietnamese students. That doesn’t even begin to touch the variety of tuning systems across the globe, many of which sound so foreign to Western ears that we simply think of them as “wrong” and “bad” – qualities that are ultimately relative.

To be fair, in the unlikely event that aliens would comprehend music similarly to humans, they would likely primarily use notes from the Pentatonic Scale, which is exactly what they did in the film. Another aspect of the movie I very much appreciated was the suggestions that aliens might be cultured, intelligent, benign beings, rather than just warmongering monsters. Even so, the ludicrous assumption that aliens would communicate through Western classical language, alongside the film’s many other flaws, made me so angry that, watching it completely alone, I was shouting at the television. If we can have that much discrepancy in musical comprehension in one species, how could we avoid it with aliens?

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


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