Orange sound wave that exponentially increases in size from left to right. Screenshot from Audacity Sound Editor.

WORKS – SonoraV19 by Robert Jarvis

In ALL, WORKS by McKenzie Prillaman

Robert Jarvis is a trombonist, composer, and sound installation artist based in the South East of England. His latest piece, SonoraV19, “sonifies” COVID-19 data, putting sound to the disease outbreak as it transitioned into a global pandemic and beyond.

In this interview with Art the Science, Jarvis describes why he created SonoraV19, the creative process behind this piece, and his use of sound to find meaning within data.

SonoraV19 (2020) by Robert Jarvis, all tracks from the piece, which is updated daily with new data

Describe your piece SonoraV19.

SonoraV19 is a sonification of the reported active cases of COVID-19 infection across 19 of the earliest countries to report the disease. Each country has been assigned its own musical note, and the volume of that note rises and falls depending on the number of daily reported cases (the higher the number, the greater volume). So as you would expect, my SonoraV19 composition begins with a note assigned to China, for which I chose a low “C.” It starts pretty quietly, and then gradually increases in volume to mark the increase in the country’s daily reported active cases. 

In a similar manner, as the virus reached other countries and their cases of infection were also reported, so too are their notes introduced and their volumes rise. And, at the time of this interview, that’s what appears to be the main characteristic of this piece… this rising in volume. Hopefully, though, it will eventually become quieter, and maybe even fade away completely. Now that really would be good news! Certainly China’s tone has quietened considerably, so perhaps that’s a start.

SonoraV19 is an audible way to experience one aspect of the story, or journey, of this virus, as it is told through the reported data and translated into sound. It may even provide another way of understanding this era that we are all living through.

What inspired you to create SonoraV19?

Like everyone, I was hearing the daily reported numbers of COVID-19 cases, initially just from China, and then from other countries as well. The problem for me was that I didn’t find the numbers on their own to be all that useful. I found that I had to do other mental calculations to understand the general flow of what was being reported, such as percentage change and so on. Of course, it’s not so difficult to understand a number in itself. However, what seemed most important to me was to be able to get a grip on how the data itself was changing, and I just wasn’t getting this from the daily reporting.

“What seemed most important to me was to be able to get a grip on how the [COVID-19] data itself was changing, and I just wasn’t getting this from the daily reporting.”

Robert Jarvis

In early February then, I found myself noting down some of this data and plotting my own graphs, mainly so that I could better understand this number-flow, as represented by the curve of a graph. However, it wasn’t long before there were so many countries reporting cases that just looking at a few graphs no longer gave me an understanding of a fuller picture. Additionally, not every country’s stats were being reported. So I felt that if I were to keep up with my understanding, then maybe I should try another method. And this is where the idea of using sound came in.

Amplitude of different notes shown in three different colors on a black background.
SonoraV19 (2020) by Robert Jarvis, amplitude display mode, screenshot of Kyma 7+ software by Symbolic Sound

Why do you think sound is a fitting approach to explore the COVID-19 pandemic?

From working on some of my other sound installations, I knew that the use of sound was an effective way of comprehending large data sets, and in a more-or-less effortless way. For my gr0w installation (in 2007), for example, I had used sound to recognize patterns in DNA and amino acid sequences. In this case, the genetic material I was drawing from was huge and could not be looked at easily on paper or screen (as there was so much of it). Instead, I found by transforming the information into sound, I was able to easily hear repetitions, inversions, and similar patterns in the genetic code.

In like manner, I used sound in my 2014 astronomical installation aroundNorth. I was able to sonically zoom in and out of the installation’s view of the near-universe to appreciate a variety of stellar data without having to reduce my “field-of-view” (unless I wanted to). With a telescope, for example, you zoom into just one star or a particular cluster of stars. But by using sonic parameters to map the near universe, I could listen to whatever range of characteristics I wanted, and at whatever distance or observable angle. So from experiences such as these, I knew that by applying some simple sonification techniques, I would be able to hopefully appreciate at least some of the general flow of data being reported for this new strain of the coronavirus, and I started collating my data.

In any case, as a sound artist, I am always asking, “Well, what would that sound like if it was expressed as audio?” So it was quite natural for me to approach this situation sonically. I especially have an interest in sounds that have some sort of story behind them or carry some sort of layered meaning. So I was intrigued to experiment with applying sonic parameters to the reported data.

“I especially have an interest in sounds that have some sort of story behind them or carry some sort of layered meaning.”

Robert Jarvis

How did you decide which note to assign each of the 19 countries’ COVID-19 data? Did you consider adding more countries as the disease spread?

By the time I started creating my sonification in mid-March, there were over 200 countries/territories reporting cases of COVID-19 infection. So too many really to represent in one piece of audio in an intelligible way. Therefore, I decided to work with a small group of the earliest countries to be affected, starting with China. For obvious reasons, I chose 19 and decided to include Thailand, Japan, South Korea, U.S.A., Singapore, France, Malaysia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, U.K., Iran, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Netherlands, and Belgium (in that order, as that was the chronological sequence in which they began reporting cases).

In terms of what notes were assigned to each country, I decided to give them pitches that corresponded to the natural harmonic series, as related to that first “C” that I assigned to China. I had assigned China a 66Hz sine wave, and so the next country (Thailand) was assigned a sine wave twice that frequency (132Hz), the third country a pitch three times higher (198Hz), and so on… and right up to the nineteenth country whose pitch was 19 times higher (1254Hz). What this means, in terms of listening to SonoraV19, is that the countries that first reported COVID-19 have the lowest notes. And consequently, the higher the pitch of the tone heard, the later that represented country began reporting its active cases.

Screenshot from control panel of SonoraV19 showing countries, data, and harmonics.
SonoraV19 (2020) by Robert Jarvis, sonora control, screenshot of Kyma 7+ software by Symbolic Sound

Within the science of acoustics, this mathematical relationship between the various tones that I used is more often known as the “harmonic series,” and is a major factor in why different sounds around us sound different. This is because different sound sources express their harmonic tones differently in terms of their separate volumes, with the result that their particular composite harmonic spectra attain their own unique signature. A clarinet, for example, sounds like it does because its odd-numbered harmonics are stronger than its even harmonics. Similarly, another instrument will have a different spread of harmonic volumes, and so won’t sound the same.

With COVID-19, I was intrigued as to how the spread of the disease would sound if I applied acoustic harmonic theory. And so I gave each country its own harmonic, the volume of which would change according to the number of reported active cases.

“With COVID-19, I was intrigued as to how the spread of the disease would sound if I applied acoustic harmonic theory.”

Robert Jarvis

There may come a point soon where I will have to make some changes to the sonification, and maybe swap a couple of the countries as well. This is mainly because of the way the data is being reported.

To date, I have been using reported “active cases,” which is worked out from subtracting the numbers for recoveries and deaths from the total cases. However, this data is becoming harder to find as countries are leaning towards other preferred statistics, such as the “seven-day-moving-average” for new cases.

If I do decide to make this change, then perhaps I might remove a couple of those countries which are so quiet in the sonification that they have little audible effect, and replace them with some that have become statistically more important. That said, I will still keep the total number to 19. I have created SonoraV19 initially as a stereo digital art piece for the internet. So I think this number of countries is about right in terms of the listener being able to discern detail and become engaged with the piece. If the opportunity ever comes for me to do a larger version of this work, for example for a gallery setting, then in this situation I would consider enlarging the sonification to include all 212 countries that have reported cases. In this situation, Sonora would sound from a large circle of multiple speakers, allowing the listener to explore the acoustic space within, in order to discern the full range of data.

Flowchart for controlling SonoraV19.
SonoraV19 (2020) by Robert Jarvis, sonic flow, screenshot of Kyma 7+ software by Symbolic Sound

Has this piece changed the way you view data and/or music as a way to convey information?

As I explained, I have been experimenting with sonification techniques for at least 13 years now. During this time, I have never ceased to be pleased with how well-suited sound is to helping one understand large amounts of data. It’s not necessarily better than, say, visualizing the information—it’s just different. And because of that difference, it opens up new lines of enquiry with those experiencing it.

“I have never ceased to be pleased with how well-suited sound is to helping one understand large amounts of data. It’s not necessarily better than, say, visualizing the information—it’s just different.”

Robert Jarvis

Actually, it’s an interesting time for me because I am working on two pieces that use sonification techniques at the moment, the other being a response to the U.S. mass shootings index entitled How Many More?. Now, these are two very different works, with SonoraV19 being the purest in terms of technique. I find it very interesting approaching each with the learning of the other. I have been especially satisfied at how effective the introduction of a time-based medium such as sound can be in controlling the speed of engagement, and therefore consideration of the subject matter. With SonoraV19, for example, by apportioning one second of audio for each day of reported cases, it demands that the listener spends at least this time relating to the information being presented as the piece slowly progresses.

This emphasis on the data and the encouragement for a potential audience to draw from information presented through sound has led me to engage in this artistic process from a psychoacoustic perspective rather than just to be thinking in terms of pure sound. To this end, I find myself wary about not producing too much information, but trying to leave enough space in the work for the listener to be able to think about what they are experiencing, without taking away their attention from what they are hearing. As ever, it is the old adage of working with less to produce more.

“I find myself wary about not producing too much information, but trying to leave enough space in the work for the listener to be able to think about what they are experiencing, without taking away their attention from what they are hearing.”

Robert Jarvis
Rainbow horizontal lines stretching across the black background.
SonoraV19 (2020) by Robert Jarvis, spectral, screenshot of Kyma 7+ software by Symbolic Sound

What message(s) do you hope to convey through SonoraV19?

With SonoraV19, I have been tempted to add other components to consolidate some sort of meaning, but so far I have resisted this! At the time of this interview, the piece has tracked just over 100 days of data, and we are obviously not at the end of this situation. So it is probably too early anyway to import any message.

As the days have gone on, I have been as interested as anyone to hear how the piece is developing within the context of what is being reported in the news. Certainly, one can hear China’s rise and fall, the emergence of Italy and Spain, and now the dominance of the U.K. and U.S.A. And throughout all of this, the volume of the piece as a whole is increasing. At the very least, this must demonstrate that this is more than a one-country phenomenon and there is a real need for a joined-up international response to this situation. But, having said that, is that what is the piece really communicating—the effectiveness of the disease to transmit so easily? Perhaps, it’s conveying the competence or incompetence of world leaders to tackle such situations? Or maybe the rise of a new world and ways of thinking about that world? Or something else, which will seem obvious in another hundred days time. Actually, it is probably too early to tell, and so I will continue to update the work. As this period of time extends, I will allow my SonoraV19 to develop accordingly and tell its own story in its own time.

“I will allow my SonoraV19 to develop accordingly and tell its own story in its own time.”

Robert Jarvis

For more by Robert Jarvis, visit his website.

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About the Author
McKenzie Prillaman

McKenzie Prillaman

McKenzie is a fledgling science communicator working at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She has a background in neuroscience, and was a research assistant at the University of Virginia and a postbaccalaureate fellow at the National Institutes of Health. After years of thinking she’d become a neuroscience researcher, she discovered her passion for sharing science with others. That finding, in combination with her lifelong dabbling in the arts, led her to write for the Art the Science blog. In her free time, she can be found volunteering with the Smithsonian Associates studio arts classes, trying new foods, and wandering around her home of Washington, D.C. Twitter: @meprillaman