The Listening Machine

The Listening Machine was a sonification that used tweets from a group of 500 participants in the UK. The creators wanted to highlight the interesting dynamics that arise from social interactions and translate those dynamics into music, so to create “a soundtrack of our everyday social lives”. It was also inspired by the Mass Observation Movement (1937), an early British experiment in social research in which 500 volunteers were asked to keep diaries of their everyday lives.

Data analysis and mapping

The Twitter users were divided into two groups: one group selected proportionally from eighth different sectors (sports, arts, technology, education, politics, business, health and science), another group was selected totally at random. When a user tweets, the Listening Machine will analyse the tweet in terms of sound and meaning, and this analysis drives the soundscape.

  • Tweets are analysed on their sentiment (positive, negative, neutral) on the basis of keywords like “brilliant”, “rubbish”, and “awesome”.
  • Furthermore, the tweets are classified in eight categories. This classification is used to analyse how much overall Twitter activity there is as well as the activity specific to one category.
  • The actual text of the tweets is analysed on prosody: The consonants are taken out and the remaining vowels are mapped on the fundamental frequency of the vowel as spoken by an average English speaker. The notes are played using pre-recorded orchestral samples (by Britten Sinfonia) and a continuous pattern emerges.
  • The tempo of the music is determined by the overall activity, thus, during the night, when there is less activity, the tempo can very low so that the sonification of a tweet can last several minutes.
  • Complementing the individual notes, there are pre-recorded patterns and concrete sounds, which are triggered by topics and keywords. The creators give the example of an airplane sound, which can emerge when the topic is airports.

The project has a dedicated website and during six months in 2012, the sonification was available as a real-time stream on The Space, an on-demand digital arts channel from the BBC and Arts Council England. Originally, it was meant to run for only 6 months, but the success of the Space channel made it extend it another three months. You can listen to a few recordings on Soundcloud to give you an idea of how it sounded.

 

Obsolence

As with a lot of data-art, sadly, The Listening Machine is not live anymore. You can still visit the website and you can listen to a few recordings on Soundcloud (see above). Peter Gregson also presented a Ted Talk in Hasselt, Belgium about the project and you ca watch a short introduction by Daniel Jones underneath.

About the artists

The Listening Machine was created by Daniel Jones and Peter Gregson.

Daniel Jones is a sound artist who explores new ways in which sound and technology can illuminate our understanding of the world.

Peter Gregson is a cellist and composer. He has premiered many contemporary cello works and as a composer is active within the film industry.

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