The Meaning of the Five Music Tones [Close Encounters of the Third Kind]

Video of the five tones

Start with the tone. (Pinkish-red) – D

Up a full tone. (Orange) – E

Down a major third. (Purple) – C 

Down an octave. (Yellow) – C (an octave lower)

Up a perfect fifth. (White) – G

These are the tones and their corresponding colors that were bequeathed upon humanity by the extra-terrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then relayed back to those aliens via a synthesizer and colored light patterns (and also a xylophone by a little kid). 

These tones establish contact with the aliens in the closing scenes, and also create the basis for the score of the entire film. They are, as best as can be surmised, the basis of a tonal language/alphabet that the aliens use to interact with the humans. In short, they are very important to the movie.

They also are, in my experience and of many others, what the viewer takes with them the most after seeing the film. Those tones replayed in my head, like a man trying to communicate with the mothership. I recalled the people in India, sitting at the spot of a UFO sighting, and as one, chanting the five tones over and over again, faces turned towards the ever-present heavens, alight with joy and expectation. The sounds made their way into pop culture, signifying that there may be aliens among us even to those who have not seen the movie. 

There is a foreignness to them, especially in that fourth note, that dips an octave and feels slightly off key, and in the way they end, with expectation and a lack of finality. But there is clear design, and comprehension- a composition to them as well. There is intelligence behind the design. They were not randomly thrown together, a feeling or a thought is being communicated through the tones, as music is wont to do. 

But the strangeness of the tones, and Close Encounters in general, is the lack of any clarity to the meaning of that collection of sounds. The scientists conclude, during the exchange with the mothership, that they are being taught a quasi-tonal alphabet. As one man put it, “It’s the first day of school fellas.” But even though the tones result in a reaction from the aliens, we don’t know what was communicated.

Scientists try to communicate with the Mothership

In fact, it may seem a bit comical to imagine, that if those tones had a literal translation to them, that the mothership would be listening to this foreign lifeform repeat the same phrase over and over again, with increasing rapidity until it blends into one continuous ringing song, “Take….us…with…you…Take…us…with…you…Take us with you…Take us with you…Takeuswithyou…TakeuswithyouTakeuswithyouTakeuswithyou.” 

But the tones are probably nothing so simple as that. As Claude Lacombe wheeled his finger in a circle, urging the synthesizer-er to play faster and faster, the looped and smashed sound of the tones together sounded more melodic and comprehensible than the individual sounds. And the response from the mothership, an orchestral cacophony of honks, dings, and blasts, with a light show to match, went beyond trying to translate the sounds to words like some tin-foil hat cryptographer. 

Maybe the tones represented an emotion, a feeling. “I am here, and I recognize you.” The tones in the movie have important emotional impact throughout the film in both the scenes and the score. The tones create the emotional backdrop as we empathize with Roy’s family as he descends into delirium, the grandiosity of discovery, and the fear of invasion. And the way the tones are played change the viewer’s emotional responses to what is happening.

There is a big difference between the emotions involved as Barry plinks away on his xylophone trying to get the notes just right-he keeps getting tripped up on the full octave dip- and when the group of Indians chant together in ecstasy. Barry creates an eerie fear of the unknown (something probably common in Munster, Indiana) and the chanting feels expectant and hopeful, full of mystical possibility.

Indians chant the five tones to the heavens

 And we see the difference in the immediate impact of the notes during the closing scene between the humans and the mothership. The slow plodding, probing and expectant feel when it starts, versus the anticipation, discovery, and excitement when the notes run together. And the aliens responded in kind. We know nothing about them other than those tones, and their bold and beautiful response, but that is enough to make us feel like we know them very well.

But maybe that is making too much of it. Maybe at the end of the day, sentient beings only have a couple ways to communicate, and when language fails we must turn to music. And as the extra-terrestrials probe this world of ours, they are on a search for sentient life. Those who respond with comprehensive notes, who can understand and return the language of music are the intelligent life forms they seek and accept and will respond to. 

So as the group of scientists in their communication bunker in Wyoming plunk out their notes on the synthesizer- at first with reservation and uncertainty- finally discover the music they are playing, they are able to communicate their intelligence back to those who first showed theirs.

But who really knows? This is alien life we are talking about. And the only sure thing at the end of Close Encounters was the lack of answers provided. What did the aliens want? What happened to those who were returned to earth? What will they do to those who went on their ship? What did those tones mean?

But leaving off a movie with questions unanswered is not a bad thing as long as the story was concluded. And in Close Encounters the tale was told. The movie is a quest for something else, something greater that can bring us out of our humdrum lives and give us something more to believe in. The same quest that draws us to the movies again and again. And the movie ends with them finding out that there is something greater out there, and it is embodied in those five tones…

Start with the tone. (Pinkish-red) – D

Up a full tone. (Orange) – E

Down a major third. (Purple) – C 

Down an octave. (Yellow) – C (an octave lower)

Up a perfect fifth. (White) – G

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If you liked this, you may also like: Can we talk about [Jaws]? or A Race of Peeping Toms [Rear Window]

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