Introducing Sonification


In this post, I define sonification as nonspeech audio that conveys information. It can also express emotion.

Well-known examples of pattern recognition using sound include the tones of Big Ben for the BBC and the three-tone chime for NBC radio. I discuss using sound to enhance storytelling in a classic orchestral piece, “Peter And The Wolf”, and a contemporary example “Seizure Sonification”.

The Georgia Tech Sonification Lab defines sonification as representing data with nonspeech audio.

In this post, I begin with recognizing patterns of sound—alarms, chimes, and musical compositions. In future posts, I will discuss using sonification to teach concepts and explore data. I am writing these posts as I gather resources and examples for a conference presentation.

Sounds can provoke a particular response.

Think of a blaring fire alarm. The qualities of loudness and repetition convey urgency. Leave now!

Pattern recognition can be achieved with sound. Musical tunes are associated with a particular brand. Think of advertising jingles.

A specific sound may be paired with a visual logo. The MGM lion roars when it is seen on screen. Read The Story of Hollywood’s Most Famous Lion in Smithsonian Magazine.

Two long-time radio broadcasters used distinctive chimes as part of their organizational brand.

Many people recognize the chimes that are broadcast on the BBC. The chimes are recorded from famous clocks in London. Big Ben (rings the note of E), and the Westminster chimes ring the four quarter bells (G sharp, F sharp, E, and B). Read the blog post Broadcasting Big Ben, by Parliamentary Archives.

Others know the 3 musical notes         (GEC) that were played on NBC radio from the 1920s until the late 1980s. Listen to the podcast episode NBC Chimes, by Twenty Thousand Hertz.

Audio can express feelings and concepts that are more complex than the basic pattern recognition required to identify fire alarms or broadcast chimes.

Sound can enhance storytelling.

Generations of children have learned about the individual instruments in an orchestra listening to “Peter and the Wolf” composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936.

Peter is represented by strings. Other characters are highlighted with woodwinds, brass, and percussion. To watch a recent performance, visit Peter and The Wolf, A Virtual Education Program – Musical Zoo 2021 by the Fort Collins Symphony.

Moving from the classical to the contemporary, a skilled sound designer can create audio that conveys information and expresses emotion.

Listen to Seizure Sonification, by Twenty Thousand Hertz. The episode features Brant Guichard’s who has epilepsy and Brian Foo who performs as the Data Driven DJ. Brant describes the “musical auras” that he hears during his seizures. The seizure sonification was based on data recorded with electroencephalography (EEG).

Brian selected musical notes and sound effects to represent different signals in Brant’s EEG data. He composed a sonification using many short samples of singing, orchestral strings, and percussion, layering the samples to represent the rapid changes in EEG data recorded during Brant’s seizure. The frequency and volume of sound increases with the intensity of brain activity.

This complex sound design was amazing listening on stereo headphones.

There’s a tradition of composers incorporating EEG data into music. Read Rapidly Learned Identification of Epileptic Seizures From Sonified EEG in the open access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In conclusion, sonification is nonspeech audio that conveys information. It can also express emotion. Basic pattern recognition helps to identify fire alarms or broadcast chimes. I gave classical and contemporary examples in which sound enhanced storytelling. In future posts, I will describe using sonification to explore scientific concepts and data.


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