What does Beijing smog sound like?

This may seem like a bizarre and abstract question, but through a process called sonification scientists are able to create sounds out of complex sets of data, often creating beautiful pieces of music.

A study done by scientists from the Francis Crick Institute, The University of Tampere and Eastern Washington University used sonification to transform the structure of proteins into song. By doing this, scientists were better able to recognize patterns and irregularities in those patterns.

The research paper states: “One of the greatest challenges in theoretical biophysics and bioinformatics is the identification of protein folds from sequence data,” and sonification helps with that problem by creating a whole new way of analyzing data; by listening to it. This has given scientists an extra set of eyes; (or in this case ears) to interpret the data.

And you don't need to be a scientist to experience this data turned music. "We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences" commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar in the study.

Programmer and artist, Brian Foo, has used sonification to bring to life intricate data sets dealing with complex social, economic and ecological issues. He creates songs from data like the smog in Beijing destroying the quality of air, income inequality in New York City, and even the movement of refugees across the globe.

This sort of sonification creates a sort of realness and tangibility to these oft forgotten issues the world is faced with. A person can look at a set of numbers and say “oh hey, maybe Beijing doesn't have the best air”, but to be able to hear the data is to experience it a way that generates a greater sense urgency about understanding exactly what it means and the implications of that very understanding.

We as people naturally understand music, so why not put our data into a naturally understood form?