Making music from earthquakes

How seismographic data can be turned into music
12 May 2023

Interview with 

Domenico Vicinanza, Anglia Ruskin University


Crack in earth


A Cambridge scientist has been attempting to turn seismic activity - recorded in real time at Yellowstone National Park. Domenico Vicinanza, a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, explains how...

Domenico - The origin is one of the seismometer that is a scientific device that is picking up earth oscillation that is physically installed in the Yellowstone National Park in the US. Normally we used to see seismographs as a squiggly line drawn by a needle on a piece of paper. So what I've done is writing a piece of code that was translating the oscillation of the needle into musical oscillation. Imagine a melody that is going up and down exactly as the waveforms, as the needle, is going up and down. So if the needle is drawing, for example an upward movement followed by a downward movement, the melody will do exactly the same. It's going up and then it will be going down. The melody is tracing the same, and it's reproducing the same kind of behaviour. The needle is speaking in Yellowstone. If the Earth is oscillating very dramatically, a lot of seismic activity, big spikes, the melody will have the same dramatic behaviour, big intervals, high notes, low notes, giving a faithful representation of what's happening in Yellowstone.

Chris - And to be clear, these are not earthquakes going on. These are small tremors that are just the way the planet works.

Domenico - Yellowstone is one of the most seismically active areas of the United States, and the experience is an average of around 1500 to 2500 little earthquakes. The majority of them are too small to be felt by humans. The very fascinating things about Yellowstone's earthquakes or tremors is the fact half of them occur in swarms. They're actually clustered together. You can have many earthquakes. They can last for one, two days. To some of them they can last for months.

Chris - So what gave you the idea to turn them into music and why?

Domenico - I think there were mainly two things. The first one, we wanted to give a different perspective. We can actually listen to that. It actually has a really nice, interesting structure and offers a different way of perceiving and understanding science. Also, science can provide a different way to create music and create art.

Chris - It sort of adds an extra dimension to our ability to experience the data, doesn't it? So rather than just looking at a squiggly line or looking at a table full of numbers, you get to experience it viscerally through the musical representation.

Domenico - That's very true. We believe that music and sound in general can be a very useful and special way of experiencing science. Our ears are much more sensitive to patterns and changes than our eyes. I think music offers an absolutely unbelievably unique window into science in a way that is directly talking to us. You can immediately understand the flavour of what's happening there. If it is calm, agitated, dramatic, jittery, we can get that just by listening to it. There is a special beauty in that.

Chris - Previously you've done the Large Hadron Collider. You set the energy levels of the collisions there to music. So you've done hadrons, you've done earthquakes. What are you going to do next?

Domenico - We are thinking about whales at the moment using hydrophones, turning the sound of water, the vibrations and waters into melodies, offering different perspectives into modern biology. Hopefully.


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