On 6 August 2013, the Curiosity rover trundling its way across the Martian landscape stopped for a brief moment. Then, using the frequencies in its on-board sample analysis unit, it played itself a little song: happy birthday. The date was exactly one year after the rover had touched down on the planet’s surface.

The moment was meant to be an inside joke among Curiosity’s engineers, a way of celebrating their achievement. It marked the first time a human song was played on another planet. It also marked the first off-planet copyright infringement, as the engineers did not technically have permission from the songs authors to represent it, but that factoid got lost in the shuffle. The story bounced around the Internet for a while before fading off, but our obsession with Mars hasn’t. Fuelled by blockbuster films like The Martian, and increased evidence of man-made climate change, we’ve never stopped thinking about what it would be like to live on another planet.

Pilcrow Mount Sharp Mars
Curiosity Low-Angle Self-Portrait at ‘Buckskin Drilling Site on Mount Sharp” by NASA. Public use.

This year, space mogul and Tesla Motors owner Elon Musk announced extensive plans to settle humans on the red planet, possibly as early as 2023. There are a staggering number of obstacles that need to be dealt with before this can happen, but the odds are good that at some point, there will be a human colony on Mars.

This colony will be long-term — it’ll have to be — and will, inevitably, need to entertain itself. What type of art would it produce? What type of music? Forget the first song played on Mars — what is the first song that will be composed there? What will it sound like?

It’s not as fanciful a question as you might think. There are plenty of examples of isolated human colonies beginning to create their own culture, stretching throughout history. And when it comes to the culture and music of Martian settlers, you don’t go talk to a scientist.

Jeff Titon is a Professor Emeritus of Music at Brown University, and an applied ethnomusicologist. He spends his time working out how music interacts and is changed by different cultures. If there’s anybody who would know what the first Martian song will sound like, it would be him.

Earth would be a heavy influence — at first

“Coming from Earth, they would bring cultural memory with them,” Titon says of the colonists. “Depending on the contact that they had with people back home, they would perhaps make music similar to what was on Earth at first.”

In the old place, it tends to modernise. You get the older music in the new colony! When contact is re-established, it turns out that the older peoples have changed their music, and developed it and modernised it.

What’s interesting is that Martian musicians wouldn’t necessarily push their tunes in bold new directions. Titon says that the instinct would be for them to be highly conservative. He cites the Scottish Highlanders who came to Nova Scotia in the 1800s, preserving old styles of bagpipe music even as their homeland modernised. Ditto for Chinese music, preserved by other Asian countries even as it changed in its country of origin.

“The general rule is that when a group of people goes to a strange place and colonise it, and does bring cultural memory including art and music, they tend to be very conservative in preserving that in the new place,” says Titon. “In the old place, it tends to modernise. You get the older music in the new colony! When contact is re-established, it turns out that the older peoples have changed their music, and developed it and modernised it.”

Pilcrow view of Mars

We could end up being influenced by Martian sounds

Right now, that consists principally of lots of wind, but there’s no telling exactly what we might find out there. And if you believe Titon, it’ll end up playing a role in the music that gets made.

“I think the short answer is that when we’ve found societies that are pre-contact, there’s a very strong pattern in terms of what it is that they do for making sounds,” he explains. “Number one, they use materials at hand. Usually these groups of people are close to nature and so they use natural materials to make their instruments, whether they are drums or bows, cane and wood, that sort of thing. Number two, the kind of music they make with these instruments is strongly influenced by the sounds that they hear in nature around them, whether it’s the sounds of animals or wind in the trees.”

Acapella, bluegrass and hip-hop would dominate

Here’s a crazy theory. Missions to Mars, which would be hideously expensive even under Elon Musk’s plan, are unlikely to prioritise music making facilities or instruments. So the music that emerges will come from genres that require very little equipment: a single guitar, for bluegrass, or a person’s mouth, for hip-hop.

“I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” Titon says, laughing, when we put the theory to him. “One uses the resources at hand. If they are the resources of the surrounding environment, the natural or unnatural world, that’s what hip-hop groups would use.”