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Sounds good: Argonne researcher represents data with music

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October 11, 2012

Music sounds better with bacteria: a scientist has swapped graphs for music in order to re...

Music sounds better with bacteria: a scientist has swapped graphs for music in order to represent data on microbes

Scientists often need to find creative ways to present data visually so others can interpret it more easily. Peter Larsen, of the Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S., decided to do something a little different: he represented microbial data with sounds. More specifically, he sonified data relating to bacteria collected from the western part of the English Channel.

The music, dubbed Microbial Bebop, is a novel approach to showing relationships between different data types. The melody represents one set of elements from a biological dataset while the chord progression represents another set of elements. A single musical measure represents one experimental observation and a complete composition is generated from all observations in an experiment.

“Usually data is mapped to a range of 12 (one and a half octaves) for notes and six for chords. Each measure of melody is generated from notes, and notes are rectified to harmony to the measure’s chords. In this way, even the same set of data represented as notes will sound different when played relative to different data used to generate chords," Larsen told Gizmag.

The compositional possibilities are literally endless. For example, given two chords per measure with a possible selection of eight chords, a melody of six notes from a one-and-a-half octave range per measure, 12 possible patterns of note durations, and three possible patterns of percussion, there are 6.88 x 10^109 possible unique measures, which is more than the estimated number of stars in the universe.

As a criterion to describing the sounds presented as Microbial Bebop, Larsen made sure musical patterns emerged naturally. It resulted in a smooth, jazzy sound. But the microscopic musicians do not limit themselves to easy listening. Larsen said that after carrying out analysis on different data, specifically on the relationship between a plant and a fungus, more avant-garde sounds emerged. He added the sounds were not random, though, since they reflect “very real phenomena”.

Apparently, this is not the first attempt to turn data into sounds, but previous efforts did not result in patterns that followed basic musical principles such as meter, tempo and harmony. Larsen said he was astounded at the musical patterns he came across, and to describe them was “a wonderful surprise."

The video below features one of the Microbial Bebop tunes, Far and Wide. A full list of MP3s can be found on the project's website.

Source: Argonne National Laboratory

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology.   All articles by Antonio Pasolini
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