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Apropos sonification: a broad view of data as music and sound

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Numbers have been identified with symbolic data forever. The profound association of both with acoustics, music, and sonic art from Pythagoras to current work is beyond reproach. Recently, sonification looks for ways to realize symbolic data (representing results or measurements) as well as “raw” data (signals, impulses, images, etc.) into compositions. In the strictest sense, everything in a computer is symbolic, that is, represented by 0s and 1s. In the arts, the digital age has broadened and enhanced the conceptual landscape not simply through its servitude to the creative process, but as its partner. However, there is a rich history of the use of data that no doubt has paved the way for many of today’s experiments including my own.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    This and the two preceding paragraphs are expansions from my didactic for Built On Sound, an exhibit in Chicago of experimental instruments (1992).

  2. 2.

    Cage particularly disliked the dominant 7th chord for the implicit hierarchy in its name and function.

  3. 3.

    George Perle (1915–2009), noted Second Viennese School scholar, loved to repeat this number of possible permutations of rows in a serial music class that I was fortunate enough to have taken during his residency at SUNY, Buffalo.

  4. 4.

    Consistently, when I would visit Feldman for a composition lesson, he would be working on his latest piece. Conversation would always start by talking about what he was doing. Several times from 1 week to the next, he would announce that he added a page in between two somewhere in the middle. Each page appeared to be an entity in itself, rendering the entire work free of a teleological plan.

  5. 5.

    Cage characterized it this way to me as we listened to Sultan rehearse for a performance at CSU Fresno in 1975.

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    Remark made in 1923; recalled by Archibald Henderson, Durham Morning Herald, August 21, 1955; Einstein Archive 33-257.

  7. 7.

    The first 6 min of EGERYA can be found here: http://www.petergena.com/egerya.html.

  8. 8.

    A link to the m4a file of LOGOS I is here: http://www.petergena.com/mp3s/LOGOSI.m4a.

  9. 9.

    From an abstract to a paper given at the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Biofeedback Research Society in Monterey, CA, February 1975.

  10. 10.

    Coincidently, the total number of codons (permutations of four bases taken three at a time, 43 or 64) equals the number of hexagrams in the I Ching, Book of Changes (two choices taken six at a time, 26 or 64).

  11. 11.

    For excerpts (“score” and sound): Red Blood Cells (1995): http://www.petergena.com/rbdna.html; Elastin (1999): http://www.petergena.com/elastin.html; Testosterone/Progesterone (2000): http://www.petergena.com/dihydtest.html.

  12. 12.

    Excerpts of Genesis can be found here: http://www.petergena.com/genexs.html.

  13. 13.

    For a sample of Immunoglobulin go here: http://www.petergena.com/immuno.html.

  14. 14.

    Prolation Collagen excerpt: http://www.petergena.com/prolcoll_exc.html.

  15. 15.


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  2. Gena P (1973) MUSICOL manual, version 1, (MUSical instruction composition oriented language) for the 6400 digital computer, SUNY at Buffalo technical report no. 7

  3. Gena P (1977) MUSICOL: musical instruction composition-oriented language. Computing in the humanities. In: North JS (ed) University of Waterloo Press, Waterloo, Ontario. University of Glasgow Press, Glasgow

  4. Gena P (1982) After antiquity (John Cage in conversation with Peter Gena). A written transcript of a recorded conversation with John Cage. NYC, March 31, 1982, originally published in the catalog for Mayor Byrne’s New Music America’82, and subsequently included in A John Cage Reader, C.F. Peters Corp., New York (expanded cloth edition, 1983)

  5. Gena P (1994) Lejaren Hiller (1924–1994), posted on Artswire, newmusicnet, 4 Feb 1994

  6. Gena P, Strom CH (2001) A physiological approach to DNA music. In: Shaw R, McKay J (eds) The Proceedings of CADE 2001: the 4th computers in art and design education conference, Glasgow School of Art Press, Glasgow

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  9. Zipf GK (1949) Human behavior and the principle of least effort. Addison-Wesley, NYC

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Gena, P. Apropos sonification: a broad view of data as music and sound. AI & Soc 27, 197–205 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-011-0339-1

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  • Music
  • Sonic art
  • Music history
  • Algorithmic composition
  • DNA music