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Data Visualization Artist Uses Music To Make Data Less Abstract

Brian Foo
(Photo via Twitter)
Brian Foo

One of the things researchers struggle with most is taking large data sets, which often take months or even years to compile, and making them understandable. But one scientist found a way to do this — using music.

Brian Foo is a data visualization artist at the Museum of Natural History, where he tries to communicate new scientific research through different new media, and different representations of data.

"I have a, you know, an artistic, creative side of me that wasn’t very satisfied with charts and graphs and data visualization as we are kind of used to it, and I was a little more interested in thinking about how you can make data a little more felt, or insight a visceral response to different issues," Foo said.

Foo takes the data, and assigns it specific musical properties — pitches, length of note, or even certain instruments. So as you listen, and you hear that notes become longer and lower, that means that people are traveling further and further to resettle.

This way you can hear — and feel the data, which can otherwise seem abstract. Or unrelatable.

"So as you start, uh, listening to the song, which starts in 1975. Worldwide there’s about, uh, a couple million people, not moving too far, primarily within the different continents. So uh, the instrumentation is very, um, light and sparse. As the song moves on, additional instrumentation is added, so you kind of also hear this sonification of globalization almost, because, uh, people are moving further and further away from home. So as the song goes on, you hear kind of deeper and deeper notes, um, in a very, you know, low hums kind of that represent people moving, you know, large distances — usually like across oceans," he said. 

And it’s not just the length and types of notes that are intentional, it’s also the style of music too.

"The types of sounds, uh, that I chose, was kind of inspired by the aesthetic of country music. Uh, which both lyrically and instrumentation-wise evocates a nostalgic feeling because a lot of the content is about, you know, longing for the past or longing for home, and you know, the instruments like the steel guitar is very, you know, iconic of — of like a crying voice. So I thought kind of using, uh, the instrumentation of — of American country music, uh, would be kind of appropriate for this particular song."
The Show’s Lauren Gilger talked with Foo about his work and how he creates it.

Distance From Home - Translating Global Refugee Movement to Song from brian foo on Vimeo.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.