Data sonification

I work with researchers to help them interpret, analyze, reason about, and communicate aspects of their data sets by mapping those data to sound. Doing data sonification has changed the way I think about data, about mapping, and about sound synthesis and control but, somewhat unexpectedly, it’s also changed the way I think about music.

There is a widely held misconception that words, and only words are capable of conveying meaning. But to restrict ourselves to symbolic language alone is to deny ourselves the full range of human expression, thought and communication. If your definition of creating meaning is limited to making logical assertions using propositional calculus, then yes, you may conclude that non-speech audio is an ineffective way to convey meaning, but in The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, philosopher Mark Johnson reminds us of the myriad of other ways that humans create meaning — ways that include spoken and written language but which extend beyond symbolic representation.

Some sonification-related presentations and publications

Why Sonification is a Joke

Keynote lecture for the 25th anniversary of the International Conference of Auditory Display: ICAD 2017 — Sound in Learning at Pennsylvania State University June 2017

Musicians join scientists to explore data through sound (2017) by Carolyn Beans, Science Writer for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS vol. 114 no. 18 Carolyn Beans,  4563–4565doi: 10.1073/pnas.1705325114).

Carolyn Beans’ Front Matter article in PNAS gives an overview of how musicians and researchers are working with data sonification, translating data into sound with the end goal of developing “deep insights into data revealed through sound”.

For composer and data sonifier Carla Scaletti, data sonification and music have different goals. Data sonification aims to “discover something about the original phenomenon that produced the data,” she says. “It’s almost like you don’t care that it was conveyed by sound. You’re trying to hear that underlying structure; whereas for music, you do want people to be aware of the sound.”

Scaletti likens aesthetic choices in data sonification to graphic design choices when preparing a chart for a scientific paper. “You choose colors and you choose a font, but all your choices are guided by the goal of wanting to make the data very clear.” When Scaletti isn’t working on scientific projects, she sometimes uses data in compositions, but she calls those works data-driven music, or just music.

“Sonification ≠ music” (2016) Book chapter in Alex McLean and Roger Dean (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Composition. New York: Oxford University Press [forthcoming]

Data sonification is a mapping from data generated by a model, captured in an experiment, or otherwise gathered through observation to one or more parameters of an audio signal or sound synthesis model for the purpose of better understanding, communicating or reasoning about the original model, experiment or system. Although data sonification shares techniques and materials with data-driven music, it is in the interests of the practitioners of both sound art and data sonification to maintain a distinction between the two fields.

Sonification of the world

We don’t live on the earth. We are the Earth. An essay written for Joel Chadabe’s Ear to the Earth on how we can listen to the music of our sphere.

Talks on data-driven Sound and the score for Gilles Jobin’s QUANTUM


A website with sound examples and descriptions of work with Lily Asquith on sonifying data from the Large Hadron Collider.

Sonification Tools in Kyma

Tools for mapping data space to sound space, presented at the Kyma International Sound Symposium (KISS2011) in Porto.

An Introduction to Data Sonification (1993) Evans, B., R. Bargar & C. Scaletti.

Course Notes for Tutorial 81 of the SIGGRAPH 20th International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. New York: Association for Computing Machinery.

Sound Synthesis Methods for Auditory Data Representation (1992)

An invited talk presented at the first International Conference on Auditory Display (ICAD) at the Santa Fe Institute, proceedings published as Auditory Display: Sonification, audification, and auditory interfaces”, Gregory Kramer, ed., Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Science of Complexity, 1994.

Using Sound to Extract Meaning from Complex Data (1991)

A video produced with Alan Craig at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to demonstrate some of the ways in which data-driven sound can enhance and extend data-driven visualizations
Winner of the NICOGRAPH International 1991 Multimedia award

Using Sound to Extract Meaning from Complex Data  (1991) Scaletti, C. & A. Craig.

A talk presented at the 1991 SPIE Conference in San Jose and printed in Extracting Meaning From Complex Data: Processing, Display, Interaction II Volume 1459, Edward J. Farell Chair/Editor, SPIE-The International Society for Optical Engineering, San Jose, February 1991.