Sonification: 5 tips to get you started

Sonification Sandbox / Georgia Tech 

Lexi Churchill, Mizzou student, built a sonification of drought data in Missouri as our first segment this month in Innovation in Focus. Here are her top five tips from her experiences learning sonification for the project: 

1. Find a Pattern

Whether you’re aiming to sonify the flow of U.S. immigration or the rise of the nation’s incarceration rates, figure out exactly what trend it is you want the audience to hear, even before you go looking for data. If you’re trying to tackle a wide sweeping topic like climate change, try to find a smaller entry point like my project on Missouri’s droughts. The more specific the data set, the more likely it is to show a clear trend that is able to be turned into sound. 

2. Study the data  

If you pick a topic that doesn’t have clear and distinct changes throughout your data, the end result may end up sounding like a pianist playing the same note over and over on a keyboard. To avoid this, take the time to study your data set to make sure it will reflect the music you hear in your head.

3. Choose your tool

If you are a master coder and plan to build a sonification tool, all the more power to you! If you’re a beginner trying to break into the world of data journalism like me, luckily there are many free tools available. I utilized Georgia Tech’s Sonification Sandbox, but there are dozens more software programs on developer sites.

4. Narrow down the data

The data you choose may not quite make sense to sonify. For example, the original drought data set I selected broke down droughts by level of severity. If I were to sonify that data set, each of those columns would have its own distinct sound that combined, appeared to be a flurry of indistinguishable sound. Keep in mind the specific point you want to get across and figure out the data set that will tell that story clearly through the sound you build. 

5. Pick the appropriate tone

Once you’ve loaded your data into the software program of your choice, work on adjusting the sound type to convey a tone that matches your story’s subject. This could mean altering what “instrument” sonifies the data within the software’s options or changing the sound inflection from negative to positive. You wouldn’t want the sound of a story about incarceration numbers to come off with a happy-go-lucky vibe. Much of these tweaks will depend on the software you develop or chose and the data set you’re sonifying. 


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