Carren's Pitch

Life by Design


Sonifying the World

Posted by Carren |

It's rare one gets to be poetic, but this piece is truly a beautiful drama unfolding. Writing this made me look at the world in a whole new way. 

When Chris Chafe translates data into music, listeners sway to the beat of seizing brains, economic swings and smog

Text by: Carren Jao
Edited by: Pamela Weintraub
Published: 02 July 2015, Aeon

We might never know when the first set of thuds, thumps and taps were strung together to make music, or when people sang the first songs, but it is incontrovertible that our lives are seeped in rhythms and beats. We tap our feet. We bob our heads. We sing in the shower. Never mind that we might not even be able to carry a tune. We join in because it feels good, because music touches the deepest part of the self.

The British neurologist Oliver Sacks calls this mankind’s musicophilia. So innate is the attraction that many non-European languages don’t even have a word that translates as ‘music’. Instead, as the African ethnomusicology expert Ruth Stone at Indiana University explains, such cultures wrap singing, drama, dancing and instrumental performance into a ‘tightly bound complex of the arts’.

Even if musicians sometimes have trouble defining music, we know it is made up of sound: vibrating objects (such as the vibrating string of a guitar) push molecules outward, creating pressure waves that radiate from the source. Sound turned into music plays the human brain: it helps to ease anxiety, lowering cortisol levels more effectively than anti‑anxiety drugs. It fires the nucleus accumbens, a structure in the primitive limbic system, triggering dopamine and the same burst of pleasure as addictive drugs. And music builds social and cultural bonds – the lullabies of childhood, love songs, the rousing hymns of battle all work to nurture intimacy and cohesion in cultures around the world.

Unlike sex or hunger, music doesn’t seem absolutely necessary to everyday survival – yet our musical self was forged deep in human history, in the crucible of evolution by the adaptive pressure of the natural world. That’s an insight that has inspired Chris Chafe, Director of Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (or CCRMA, stylishly pronounced karma). [read more]


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