Where others see only numbers, physicist and musician Domenico Vicinanza hears dance tunes and epic scores. Vicinanza sonifies raw data by mapping it to musical scales. In 2012, he collaborated with other musicians and researchers to turn data from the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle into a toe-tapping motif. Vicinanza’s latest project is heaven-sent: He turned raw feeds from Voyager 1’s magnetometer into a space odyssey symphony. He’s currently working on a “duet” between Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.
DISCOVER Associate Editor Gemma Tarlach asked Vicinanza, based in Cambridge, England, why data is his muse.
Why sonify? Data sonification is a really huge chapter in the global book of representation techniques. We are probably more used to listening to the waveforms of the things that are around us, like the noise of an engine, the sound of a drop of water, or the comforting voice of a loved one, rather than imagining that we can use a melody to describe data and information.
How does it work? The principle is quite simple: growing data, growing pitch. Decreasing data, decreasing pitch. We have a huge freedom in choosing the notes, in mapping the numbers to the actual sounds, provided that the following two principles are satisfied: first, that the same number is associated to the same note. Second, that the melody changes following exactly the same profile of the scientific data.
Can you give an example? Let’s say 25 is associated to middle C. Every time the data gives us 25, it will be played as middle C. This is rule number one. Rule number two: 25=C, 26=D, 27=E, 28=F, 29=G. If data moves from 25 to 26, the melody will go from C to D; if the data jumps from 25 to 28, the melody will follow accordingly from C to F. This is a leap three times larger in the data (three steps from 25 to 28), which is mapped to a three-times larger musical interval.
So you could make the growl of my beat-up, 13-year-old car idling at a traffic light into something symphonic? The brief answer is yes. And actually, I am quite tempted to try.
Listen to Vicinanza's Voyager 1 symphony here.