• 10.04.12

Beautiful Music, One Good Thing To Come From Air Pollution

Turning data about dirty air into musical performances puts the need to keep our skies clean into a different context.

Air pollution has few positives, but a small silver lining was found by Gabriel Isaacman, a doctoral student at the University of California, and journalist Aaron Reuben who have put the air pollution data of California to song. Their analysis of data from the University of California-Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management’s sampling stations sounds like mellow electronica with sonic outbursts reflecting chemical pollutant spikes.


The pair drew their air sample data from airborne particulates, separated in a gas chromatographer, and analyzed by a mass spectrometer for their exact chemical structure. “The result,” write the authors in their article in The Atlantic, “is a qualitative, sensory experience of hard, digital data.”

Keeping the air clean would actually make for better music (and better quality of life. “The ‘clean’ air is actually loaded with chemicals, off-gassing plant resins, and fragrances,” says Reuben, “that create a more intricate and, I think, enjoyable sound. There are light pops and and crackles throughout the soundscape, in a way that reminds me of bees hurrying around a field. The polluted air, on the other hand, is just loaded with hydrocarbons, which lump up in the sound file to create a terrifying drone.”

The tracks began as a project of Isaacman’s, but when Reuben heard them, he saw an opportunity. “When he played a few for me I thought, now this could be a good way to talk about air pollution, to make something relatively intangible tangible, and to use that new creative space to discuss lingering environmental problems in America. I was thrilled to learn that he had data from America’s most polluted city (who had heard of Bakersfield, CA before?) as well as so-called pristine spaces.”

The sonification of data, in fact, is nothing new. It’s not just happening with air pollution. Even more complex and impenetrable data sets from physics and astronomy are being turned intro sounds. Human hearing, in fact, is exquisitely sensitive at detecting the difference between subtle tones, as well as detecting patterns that might otherwise overwhelm our other senses.

You can listen to the sonic signaure of the suspected Higgs Boson particle, for example, from Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider. Also known as the God particle, its sound is a high F set to something resembling the rhythms of Cuban habanera music. Or listen to solar wind particles collected by NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer Satellite as they fluctuate in speed and density. For now, sonifcation is a new way to present and play with data. In the future, it may allow us to extract new insights.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.