LHC Concerto

Recently, a new song was created to celebrate the tenth anniversary of GEANT – the high-speed pan-European communication network dedicated to research and education. The names of the national networks interconnected by GEANT and that allow data to be exchanged between European research institutes were turned into music. The technique is known as ‘sonification’, and aims at complementing the graphic representation of data with sound.


From a technical point of view, converting textual or numerical information into sound signals is the same as creating a graph, except that a song is made up of notes and tones instead of lines and points. From the point of view of a physicist, two conditions must be satisfied in order to represent a set of data accurately: uniqueness – a single item of data must be linked to one and only one point or sound - and covariance, which means that the graph or the melody must vary as quickly as the data. In music, this second condition is satisfied by frequency, timbre and volume. “From an early age, we learn to perform visual data analysis, while no one ever teaches us how to perform auditory data analysis,” says Domenico Vicinanza, author of the GEANT song, who works at DANTE (see box) as a project support officer and product manager. “However, we are constantly performing auditory data analysis, for example, every time we recognize a person on the phone. The ear naturally recognizes patterns, structures and sequences. If we are searching for a particular value which, for some reason, is distinguished from a series of data, identifying it on a graph can be tricky and it can be easier to recognize a wrong note.” On the other hand, the eye can take in an overall view, which is difficult to achieve with sound. So, the analysis of data could be improved by the use of graphs together with an auditory analysis.

Sonification can be useful in developing strategies to translate data into audible information to help blind researchers carry out comprehensive data analyses exclusively from sounds. “For instance, to transform a graph into sounds that show the rise of the price of bread as a function of time, you may use a higher note for a higher price. If there is a big price hike, there will be a fast rise in pitch,” explains Domenico Vicinanza. “In this case, you are still only using the ear’s ability to process information in sequence. It is also possible to make a single sound that, like a graph, can give an instant overview of all the information. In this case it is possible to code into the sound spectrum - rather than into the melody – the data to be sonified,” he explains.

The huge amount of data coming from the LHC experiments is very inspiring to any sonification expert, to the point where several projects have come to life in recent years. Domenico Vicinanza is upping the ante: more than sonification, he is thinking of orchestration! “I would like to get something of artistic significance from the data used by the researchers, composing a concerto for a string quartet, where each musical instrument represents one of the four major LHC experiments. This would be a metaphor for scientific collaboration and reflect the complementarity of the experiments; each instrument plays its own score coming from the data of one experiment, yet it is only upon hearing them all together that you appreciate the completeness and beauty of the song,” says Domenico Vicinanza. Can’t you already hear a beautiful sound in your ears?

Domenico Vicinanza graduated in piano and composition from the Salerno Academy of Music where he discovered an interest in data sonification while teaching music to visually impaired students. He developed different sonification strategies depending on the type of data to be processed, through a programme of advanced studies carried out at the Department of Informatics and Mathematics of the University of Salerno from 2001 to 2006. These studies led to a collaboration with the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Catania to develop an auditory analysis of seismic data from the Mount Etna area (Sicily). Domenico Vicinanza is now working at DANTE as a project support officer and product manager. DANTE is a non-profit organisation, coordinating large-scale projects co-funded by the European Commission, and working in partnership with European National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) to plan, build and operate advanced networks for research and education. Established in 1993, DANTE has been fundamental to the success of pan-European research and education networking. DANTE has built and operates GEANT, which provides the data communications infrastructure essential to the success of many research projects in Europe.

by Francesco Poppi