Superior’s Song

Julien Malherbe, College of Engineering

I grew up in Marquette, Michigan, a small town in the Upper Peninsula on the shores of the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world – Lake Superior. For the better part of my life, the lake became a grounding point, the psychological and physical entity that tied me to my environment. I became so used to the expanse of a large body of water just a few short steps from my home, school, and activities that moving to Ann Arbor was a shock. The loss of sensory stimulation from the lake – the sound of its waves, the sight of its enormous expanse, the feeling of its power – made me truly understand my appreciation for Superior.

For this reason, I decided to focus my project on experiencing Lake Superior in a new way. Sonification is the process of converting data into sound, with the result of being able to hear data instead of just seeing it in numbers or graphs. I created an extensive program using the programming language Python that converts historical data measured on Lake Superior from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into music. In my piece, listeners can hear the data from four environmental factors that define the lake’s existence over the past century. Annual and monthly lake levels (water height), water temperature, precipitation levels, and cloud cover data are converted into coherent musical tracks that overlay and produce an auditory experience that allows the listener to imagine Superior herself playing a song. Each pitch is determined by a data point of these factors ranging within the last century, and the length and volume of each note are determined respectively by the change in the data and the difference from the mean. In my video, the music is accompanied by the sounds of waves crashing against the shore and clips of various images of the lake to further enhance the overall story of Superior.

My project explores one of the most important aspects of the scientific process – interpretation of data. While it is important to quantify findings and come to conclusive results, what science sometimes lacks is an attention to qualitative observations. Numbers and graphs evoke logic, reason, and conclusions. But I believe that like music or art, science can also yield emotions and feelings through qualitative discovery. With sonification, I hope to expand the definition of interpreting data to become not only a means of obtaining useful conclusions, but also a way to experience an object of study through auditory perception.

This project was created in response to Julien’s Art/Sci Residency as recipient of The Thompson Prize. This work was also selected as a best in category winner of the 2021 Science as Art competition.