OpenText Data Digest Nov 27: Data Mapping Music

For this week, we present some examples of how to display music visually, which may get you thinking of other creative ways to visualize data and bring patterns to the surface.

One of the biggest motivations behind creating graphs, charts, dashboards, and other visualizations is that they make patterns in data easier to perceive. We humans are visually oriented creatures who can intuitively note patterns and rhythms, or spot a detail out of place, through imagery long before we can detect them in written reports or spreadsheets. Or sheet music, for that matter.

For this week, we present some examples of how to display music visually, which may get you thinking of other creative ways to visualize data and bring patterns to the surface. Enjoy!

If you’ve had any experience reading music, you may be able to tell some things about a piece by looking at its written score. For example, you could probably tell that this piece (an excerpt from Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel”)

Arvo Part, "Spiegel im Spiegel"

is of a gentler, less agitated nature than this one (the introduction to “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage,” from Handel’s “Messiah,” which you might be hearing this holiday season).

"Why do the nations furiously rage," from Handel's "Messiah"

In fact, Handel and his contemporaries expected listeners to be reading along to the music in the printed score and appreciate the “word-painting” with which they illustrated the text or mood of the music.

The practice of word-painting has become less common as fewer and fewer people in modern generations learn to read sheet music. But some composers have found other ways to illustrate their music.

The avantgarde composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky created “chromatic” music in both senses of the word. He used not only every note in the 12-note tuning system of classical Western music (where adjoining notes on a piano keyboard are a half-step apart, like A, B-flat, and B natural – what is called a chromatic scale), but notes “between the cracks.”

These “ultra-chromatic” pieces required special keyboards that could play two or three different notes between the keys of a regular piano. It’s hard for people who don’t have perfect pitch to hear the difference between these so-called “quarter-tones,” but they lend a subtle eeriness to his music. (Here’s an example: “24 Preludes in Quarter-Tone System.”

Then Wyschnegradsky turned to a familiar data-visualization technique: Color. He started representing his music in rainbow-hued wheels, like this (picture via the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Paris).

Étude Chromatique (private collection)

Ever since childhood, he had been fascinated by rainbows. As an adult, he noted the parallels between the 12 colors of the chromatic spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, plus the intermediate hues of red-orange, orange-yellow, and so forth) and the 12 chromatic notes in classical music. And just as colors can shade into one another subtly (is this lipstick reddish-orange, or an orangey-red?), so can musical notes (like a slide whistle or trombone). The parallels were too good to pass up.

So Wyschnegradsky assigned a color on the spectrum to each of the dozens of quarter-tones in his musical system, then plotted his melodies in circles like a spiderweb or radar chart.

As Slate Magazine blogger Greta Weber wrote:

Each cell on these drawings corresponds to a different semitone in his complex musical sequences. If you look closely enough, you can follow the spirals as if it were a melody and “listen” to the scores they represent.

Wyschnegradsky’s color-wheel scheme never caught on. But the patterns it brings to light have parallels in popular visualization systems, from traffic delays to weather. It’s clear that color helps illuminate.

Like what you see? Every Friday we share great data visualizations and embedded analytics. If you have a favorite or trending example, please comment below.