Covid-19 in the UK – sonified

Data Sonification – using sound to make data easier to understand – is fascinating, and I think an incredibly powerful way to understand something quickly and instinctively – more so than just looking at the numbers alone.

Coronavirus Data from the UK made into music

The rising numbers of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK have become difficult to comprehend, so I wanted to use sound to create a more meaningful interaction with the statistics.

Listen out for the following:

Harp = Total cases | Violin = R number | Church Organ = new cases per month.

I used two tone for the data sonification after cleaning the data, then exported each ‘data song’ file into Logic Pro X to mix. The piece goes up at the end because of the rising case numbers. However, I felt the piece needed something extra to make it more ‘listenable’ and therefore easier to understand – instead of just hearing a series of musical notes. So the challenge: how do we balance any accompanying instruments – adding ambience and atmosphere without obstructing the data?

The hardest thing was choosing how to orchestrate the data itself: for fast moving numbers I felt the sound needed to be more percussive – but for the R number I felt there needed to be a more constant sound. I suspect there are some innate rules for data sonification I’m tapping into here, which might be interesting to research further.

Finally I used deep music visualiser to generate an #AI video which responds to the pitch and tempo, then onto Final Cut Pro X to edit on the captions and statistics to help listeners detect how the changes in pitch correlate to the numbers.

I hope that the next time I’m turning coronavirus data into music that the piece ends up lower at the end.

The UK #Coronavirus data was correct at 20 Dec. Stats taken from Our World In Data

Music-Powered Spaceship

Last Sunday I took part in a very unconventional story/experiential theatre event run by a friend of mine. I live-composed the music. The event involved taking an audience on a fictional journey into space. Then (whilst in that context) they were given amazing lectures by real rocket scientists (Dr David McKeown), artists (Toby HarrisSinead McDonaldJeffrey Roe and more. The talks were diverse but relevant. Imagine hearing what space travel would feel like – as if you and the whole theatre was in fact in a spaceship – travelling through space. Kate Genevieve, a visual artist talked about the messages sent with the Voyager space probe. A man from SETI (Alan Penny) informed us of the best way to survive first contact in a suitably realist approach. There was more, but I’ll get to that nearer the end.

And I? I powered the spaceship with music.

It’s because of Leila Johnston – Hack Circus is her thing. She asked if I would like to create music to simulate ‘hypersleep’ during extended space travel, I went one step further and wrote the following email reply…

I have a great job of being the hyperspace engineer – the piano keyboard is in fact my console muwahaha

Leila responded with;

Oh I love that. Yes! Play us into hyperspace! What a lovely lovely idea.

This really captured my imagination, so much so that I appeared to send the following response:

Yes, the equations are quite complicated to most people. But hyperspace mathematics calculations actually have more in common with Bach fugues than physics, turns out those aren’t musical pieces but formulae all along. A fantastically complicated spatial equation can be surprisingly easy to solve musically which is why the keyboard is my usual preference for transport consoles. Bach was a hyperspace engineer from the future who got stuck in a time travel incident. Before he got transferred back to his timeline he enjoyed annotating his equations in musical form and confusing the natives.

Though the sustain pedal just puts the kettle on

I found this in my ‘sent’ items the next morning, and hurriedly dashed off an apology for sleep-emailing. Clearly I had really taken my role as Hyperspace Engineer to heart.

For some reason this didn’t put her off, and the event was quite literally a blast.

There were cabin crew. There were flashing lights. There was hazard tape. Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist, played some amazing sounds from space that triggered my synaesthesia like you wouldn’t believe.

The sound of Saturn’s rings original, courtesy Cassini Radio & Plasma Wave Science team:
“…the sounds produced are exciting! You can listen to the sound of passing through the ring dust by clicking here. sound Listen ” (nb the ‘Listen’ link opens up a video file)

Wow! What magical unearthly sounds! What a weird recording! I had to share how wonderful it felt to absorb these strange vibrations! I attempted to convey my synaesthetic response to the sound of Saturn’s rings – what I hear when I hear them…  and this is the result.


For those interested, here’s the mission page. Off topic, I’m joyous to report that the Sun in our solar system plays a giant Major 7th.

Music Messing with our Heads

I recently devoured a great book called “Quirkology” by Prof Richard Wiseman, whose experiment measuring how fast people walk in different cities around the world showed (unsurprisingly) that the pace of walking has got faster (to find out which cities were faster than others, and other weird and wonderful experiments, buy the book!)

This increase in pace mirrors an increase in musical pitch over the last few centuries – as the pace of life gets faster, Middle C gets higher! In Baroque times, (around 1700) Middle C was a full semitone lower – this is why I have to transpose in my head when I play baroque-pitch harpsichords.

When I’d go dancing, it would distress me musically as the sound systems would regularly play music at about 5-6Hz higher than it should have been – I wondered whether this pitch-shift was intentional, and people would unwittingly dance more / drink more as a consequence of this increase, or whether the sound systems were just rubbish, no-one was experimenting, and only freaks like me would suffer?

My freakiness is Perfect Pitch, a strange affliction/gift that means I can correctly identify notes, chords etc., and tell someone what key they are speaking in – where it starts to get a little strange is that I’ve found that people who speak in, say, F major, appear to be quite persuasive and good at motivating, whereas people who speak in B minor appear to be quite negative in their outlook – I’ll go out on a further limb here, and mention that everyone seems to have a key they normally speak in, and others that they modulate to depending on their situation/company/mood – this is something I’ve done since I was a kid, but last weekend at the Food 2.0 wrap party, I mentioned that someone was speaking in Bb major, which resulted in strange looks and a request to blog about it, hence the post.

…but one digresses (as usual). Continuing the pacing theme, in the 90s, music at 135bpm was considered ridiculously fast, however, in the noughties, we happily imbibe 160bpm without missing a beat (no pun intended) – there’s not that much more room in terms of tempo, (before it becomes pitch) so what happens next?

How fascinating that music affects us so deeply!  During (and after) my music degree, I performed some (very) empirical research. As a lifelong insomniac, I wanted to find out a way to get to sleep easily. The relaxation tapes I purchased were fine in terms of the NLP-type hypnotic language used etc, however, the background music kept me awake!  After reading all kinds of weird and wonderful research that music at 60bpm, the average resting heart rate, can sometimes have a calming effect on the body, I decided to test that out by composing – and engineered music that would relax me by using this tempo and also choosing the keys that I personally found calming.  Well, it worked on me, because I fell asleep writing it, and had to compose some of the stuff in double time (how frustrating).  What was even stranger was that it appeared to work on other people, too…

I’d be very interested to hear any thoughts on music and how it affects humans (or other animals – I remember New Scientist running a piece about chickens listening to Pink Floyd) – and I’ll put some samples  up online soon (will blog with link) so you can have a listen.   LJ x