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What is Sonification

Recently I came across the term Sonification when I stumbled upon a news article about how images and data from space had been turned into music. The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula were likened to an eerie sci-fi film score. My interest was peaked, and I had to find out more. Soon I found myself listening to a bunch of videos that mapped spacial discoveries using both images and sound. Each new element was introduced by a new sound, forming strange, complex, and perhaps somewhat random music.

‘Sonification can make cosmic wonders more accessible to people with blindness or visual impairments, and complement images for sighted learners. SYSTEM Sounds teamed up with Kimberly Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., to create the new pieces.’ – Science News

Sonification Explained.

Turning data into music or sound is not a new concept. Off hand I can think of various day to day sonification instances where sounds have been used to indicate certain visual cues. The beeping of the Pedestrian Stop/Walk light, the tictocking and chiming of a clock…

Interpreting data with the use of sound or music for the purpose of conveying certain information or perceptualizing a concept has been used by man since the early 20th century. The Geiger counter, invented in 1908, is one of the earliest and most successful applications of sonification. Indicating levels of radiation with increased warning clicking sounds.

Nowadays new applications and systems for turning data into sound are being developed, and although there is still no exact method on how to do it, various scientists, researchers and musicians have been collaborating to interpret data through sound or sonification in various interesting ways. SYSTEM Sounds have been working on more space music and ICAD (International Community for Auditory Display) holds annual conferences and forums for people to come together to explore research in auditory display, the use of sound to display information.

Changing data is often shown by increasing or decreasing the pitch, amplitude or tempo, as well as with different notes or even timbre. Not only is the data producing unusual compositions in sound, but perhaps it can also inspire musicians to think outside of the box when it comes to arranging tones, or compositions for new music. Several different techniques such as Acoustic Sonification , Audification and Model-Based Sonification have been used. These methods can create various interactive musical pieces or even instruments and there are some open-source software tools that have been developed alongside, to facilitate them.

Sonification is still in its infancy and it will be interesting to watch its growth and application. Perhaps it may even spawn a whole new array of careers within the science of sound and musicology. Check out SYSTEM Sounds for more sonification videos and perhaps try your hand at creating your own sonifcations with tools like combining Arduino and Mozzi, perhaps you will invent a new instrument! Or visualise active data with sound in your own installation!

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