Dude, Did You Hear That Data!?

Posted: Monday, March 4, 2013 by Dylan Benson in Labels:

Data: it’s everywhere.  From our finances, NASA satellite readings, customer purchases, and more.  We see this as numbers, statistics, spreadsheets, and long drawn out calculations that someone who spent too much on education should be doing because no one else can be bothered by it.  While this may be the case, people like Robert Alexander handle all of this a little differently.  This man takes raw data, and makes music from it.

Courtesy of YouTube Vice

Robert Alexander is a “Data Sonification Specialist”.  That is an awfully fancy term right?  Well it simply means that he takes any type of data and turns it into sound.  A basic example of this would be a heart rate monitor.  That “beep, beep, beep” sound that you hear is essentially the sonification of someone’s pulse.  This is very basic though.  Alexander takes this to the extreme.

There is really not much on data audification/sonification on the internet, and if you find any information about it, it’s very unappealing and way too “smart sounding”, and not creative.  After all, when you think of music, you don’t think about complex math and science, but fun.  So why read about all this stuff when you can do it yourself and actually hear what this is all about?

I did a little experiment myself that you can do.  All you need is some data (a Word document, a spreadsheet, ETC) and the free audio software called Audacity.  When in Audacity, select File > Import > Raw Data, and import anything.  You will see the “audification” of it.  When you press play, you will just hear static.  But under the play button, there is a slider that allows you to slow this down and you will hear some dark tones.

Excel Spreadsheet Audification

So the computer has done the work.  You see the data, and hear the data in static.  Where does the sonification come in?  This is where you need an artist like Robert Alexander.  He hears these underlying tones, and sees the audio’s transients (spikes in the waveform).  From that, he builds music around it.  Take a look at a clip from his work:

Courtesy of Robert Alexander.  Click here for more of his work.

One can argue that he just made some emotional sounding music to go along with the visuals.  However, Alexander based every sound, tone, drum beat, and music accent on the original data from satellites tracking activity on the sun.  The synth sounds are based off of the underlying tones, the drums based off the activity of the sun, and some accents are based off of solar flares.  A similar work can be done by just looking at these videos and just making music, but it’s the tie to the data that makes this so unique.

This is basically nature printing sheet music, and people like Alexander turning those “musical notes” into sound that you and I can hear and feel.

So we have one man making music from the data of the surface of the sun.  Where can we see/hear this in the future?  I personally see products such as video games/applications and music creating software implementing audification/sonification technology into its platforms.  Imagine an application that you import a picture into.  The software will read the data and spit out a song that corresponds with the digital make up of the photo.  Perhaps Apple will create something like “iSonification” where you can import your book report, or some other lengthy document and actually “hear” it.  These types of products would definitely be something to see, or should I say “something to hear”?

There are applications like Sonification Soundbox that are getting there, but they are a long way away from something mainstream.

Courtesy of YouTube Vice

While this may all sound like fun and games (and for the most part it is), this is also a very scientific approach.  Hearing this data can point to certain trends in these gatherings.  For example: a drum beat that happens every eight bars of the music can signify the end of a solar rotation (if your data is of the sun of course).  This may be a good method to bring together the average Joe and the science nerds in a way that each one can understand the same data, but in his or her own way. 

Does anyone else have the urge to try something like this?  No?  Is it just me?  Well if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to break out every paper I have ever written, and listen to them for the first time.  If you find this interesting, I really encourage you to watch this video below:

PS: If you have not read my most popular blog post "Dude, Did You See That Sound!?", then click here!