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In "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", the aliens communicate with a sequence of 5 musical notes. Lacombe, the UFO expert, is shown in a conference room showing a sequence of hand signals corresponding to the notes. According to the trivia section on IMDB:

The hand signals used by the aliens are actually used by classroom teachers to teach the solfege scale. They were invented by the Reverend John Curwen, an English Congregationalist minister, and then adapted by composer Zoltán Kodály.

(Lacombe mentions Kodály in the movie.)

I'm not sure this is really a spoiler, but

The aliens actually use the hand signals only in response to Lacombe's use of them.

Is there an in-universe explanation of the use of these hand signals? Did they actually communicate any useful information?

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    For that matter, if the hand signals were simply representations of the musical notes, what message did the musical notes send? (I'd especially be interested in the long musical conversation between the alien ship and the ground based computer.) Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 15:05
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    @NorbyTheGeek: I'd say the point of the notes was to be a consistent, repeated message. There isn't necessarily any underlying meaning, other than "this is a unique message, clearly created by an intelligence, that you're hearing in these multiple encounters across your planet". (Or they might be the melody of the aliens' latest top-40 hit, Take Me (To Your Leader).) Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 17:55
  • Where the sounds in the movie also the coordinates of devil tower mountain? Or was that something else. If it was. We were literally just yelling " devil tower mountain" at the aliens over and over again
    – user64916
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 6:14
  • @sharky: No, I don't think so. Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 15:09

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I'm an adult who just saw this for the first time. (I must be from Mars.) As a Kodaly trained musician, this musical part of the film felt both personal and expressive. It made me happy to see Kodaly mentioned and to hear sol fa tones used as a means of communication, to communicate the notes with the hand signals, and to refer to the melody in terms of the intervals between the notes. (The actor didn't do his signals exactly correctly, nor were they coordinated well with the pitches, but I could hardly make a fuss as it was such a lovely touch anyway. ) What's written above about Curwen is correct. I use the hand signals to teach rhythm and melody with my students every day. I hear every piece of music in these terms. Just as sign language can be extremely expressive of emotion and nuance, even more so than verbally spoken language, this film showed that in some cases non verbal communication reaches across the gulf better than all the pretty words in the world.

Indeed, this film is largely a metaphor about the quality of communication and what that can yield for distinct entities and beings. Between the aliens and the humans, the ability to communicate was established by the initial series of pentatonic tones. Communication became more and more friendly and enthusiastic after the basic "Re Mi Doh (Doh) Sol" tune got established and shared, and then the conversation grew much more like a conversation between friends; richer sounds, nuanced, rapid back and forth parley, expressive, animated, colorful.

But as between humans? We got a bad grade for effective communication! In the first scene the wind and flying sand precluded both speaking and hearing, leading to degraded communication. Talking past each other in Mexico, in Indiana, in Siberia, in India, in the flight control room, in the government control room, by a government that took extreme steps to block all communication with the public. In the Dreyfuss' character's dysfunctional family there was absolutely no communication! no listening, no understanding, no guidance from the parents, no thoughts being passed, no empathy. Only those who'd experienced an "encounter" were communicative with each other, the people from the past were able to communicate with the present, and people felt passionate to tell the world about their experience.

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    That's a fascinating perspective, thank you. But speaking as someone who had never heard of the hand signs before seeing the movie, the point didn't come across well, at least for me. I have a musical background; to me, the correspondence between the hand signs and the notes is obvious, but the reason for the hand signs is not. That may say more about my ignorance than about the gestures themselves. Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 15:15
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This may seem obvious, but hand signs are also a form of communication distinct from verbal speech. The aliens in Close Encounters did not seem to use verbal speech to communicate. There are many, many other ways to communicate besides the spoken word (ask anyone fluent in ASL, or the parent of a nonverbal child). This film demonstrated two: music (The synthesizer player: "What are we saying to each other?") and the hand signals for the musical notes. The music was a sort of Rosetta Stone for starting the conversation between humans and aliens; for finding a common language.

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To add another dimension following on the above answer, humans playing the tune the aliens supposedly have been implanting to them basicly replies 'see, look, we got your message; we realize it's from you and important. Thank you for this privilege. So, we're hip and worthy, right?' :-)

Thusly, then the hand signal must add one more dimension or attempted universality for Lacombe and the walking (shorter) alien to share. Either the aliens somehow instilled the hand forms with musical sharing they did eons ago'see, we're even this good as worthy disciples; so thrilled to meet you face on', OR Lacombe is adding a vector, saying 'this is the way we use hands rather than sound to say the same thing -- so I invite you to use this hand signal Rosetta Stone too. Since you seem to not be making sound, or since your ship's making tons of noise, or walking close enough to talk seems scary for both of us' lol

In short, I dunno, it looked great though, huh? grin

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  • To reply one more time, my 'backstory interpretation' should've been different, since discussions like this one(below link), suggest that that musical collection of notes itself is presumed essential in every planet's/celestial body's vibrations--- thus, the note set and sharing it is a measure of intelligence and demonstrates worthiness/civilization advancement level. Give those humans a hand, now! :-) ars-nova.com/Theory%20Q&A/Q35.html Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 5:53
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I just watched the film again for the first time in years. The hand signals are an interpretation of the music signals. The French Scientist wanted to show the ET' s an easier way they could communicate. He was banking on them having hands since they were so advanced. He also figured they couldn't speak because they would have picked up English in the thirty plus years they had studying their human subjects. You would think that in the sample group there must have been someone who knew Morse Code and could have taught it to the aliens. Seems like the Aliens were less interested in communicating with us because they knew how barbaric and petty we are and more focused on our physiology. They probably noticed in their studies how music seemed to calm down their samples so they opted for musical communication so they could avoid having to engage any further.

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I think the hand gestures in combination with the notes were meant to spell "hello". The two octave notes are obviously the same letter repeated. I think what they did was make a Mish mosh of the Kodaly method, the hand signals, and sign language to make a word that meant "greetings". Five tones in all, one octave. H-E-L-L-O.

The reason I think they used this tune in Moonraker was because they were opening a door. When someone opens the door and enters, you say "hello". It's meant as a greeting.

And also as a tip of the hat to Spielberg. But I really feel if the notes were meant as some form of greeting then the five notes including the octave spell hello.

I also noticed the director in moonraker was Jean Tournier. Correct? Wasn't Jaques Tournier in Close Encounters? That can't be coincidence.

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    Do you have anything to support that? Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 5:14
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I know this question is old, but it's still the top result on Google, so I'd like to post more information.

The Kodály method is used to communicate to the other musicians what notes to play, but the musical language being "spoken" in the film is based on Solresol. Solresol uses musical notes--or alternatively, colors--to express ideas. Solresol was invented by François Sudre in 1827 with the idea of creating a universal language much like Esperanto.

There are several existing variants of Solresol still in existence. You can find different translation engines online, including one here: https://www.sidosi.org/translator

For example, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" translates as:

re-la-mi-re la-so la la-fa-re-sol la-re-fa-la

Or in color as:

orange-indigo-yellow-orange indigo-blue indigo indigo-green-orange-blue indigo-orange-green-indigo

So, hopefully, that makes the combination of sounds and color the ships were displaying make more sense.

Sadly, the song that John Williams wrote for the conversation scene does not translate intelligably into Solresol. Real Solresol conversations may be musical, but that doesn't mean they make for enjoyable music... so I think it's safe to say that Williams did the right thing. ;) The music in the film is a lot of fun and captures the idea of a musical language, even if the translation isn't valid.

By the translator, the notes "so-la-fa fa-do" of the Close Encounters theme translates (not quite correctly) to "what is this?"

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  • This is interesting, but I think the point is that the hand gestures were a way to communicate about the music, and for this to be a good answer you should emphasize that a bit more.
    – DavidW
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 3:07
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Because the hand signs represent the musical notes: we've always, since I remember, referred to music as a (the) universal language. To me, it truly is the only logical language for the universe.

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    I don't see how this answers the question. Of course the hand signs represent musical notes. But even assuming music is as universal language, why not just use the musical notes by themselves? Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 22:55
  • math not music but the two (and physics) are all closely related.
    – ivanivan
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 4:54
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Not everyone can hear. Using multiple modalities (color, sound, movement) makes it more likely to be able to communicate to the widest range of other beings, simultaneously. You get the benefit of reinforcement of the message, and a chance that some vector of your message will be understood by as many beings as possible.

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    Welcome to SFF:SE. We recommend having a look at the tour, which contains helpful hints for using the site. This answer would be improved by links to sources confirming that this was the filmmakers' intent.
    – Politank-Z
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 4:36
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In Contact, a book by Carl Sagan about the first contact with aliens it's made out that communication by aliens and humans would be by mathematics as it is seen as a universal language.

Personally, I think that this well overstates the case and is likely to be untrue - as far as one can ascertain such speculations. Close encounters demonstrates this in a gripping narrative by showing how simple musical harmony and hand gestures can be used to communicate between intelligent life forms and humans.

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You guy's got it all wrong. You need to check out the deleted scene.

When he enters the ship and looks around you will see sparkling dust that falls on top of him. That sparkling dust turns him into the alien. That's were the next part comes in. He is actually the alien that comes out of the ship with the hand signals. He was shown those hand signals in case he was changed and can could not speak so they would know it was him. That is why they were training people that may go with the aliens.

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    To save time for others, the scene ends with the sparkling dust coming down. There's no indication that he turns into an alien. That scene was not "deleted"; it was included in the Special Edition. If you have evidence that he was turned into an alien, please add it to your answer. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 19:11

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