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The sound of waves: tracking the pandemic

Background silence, ambient noise.Wave in// Emerging unrest—distinctive—bass. Gradual loudness, high pitch, increasing frequency—and incidence rate// Wave out.Sudden blast: lockdown.

This is how the COVID-19 pandemic may sound, if one could hear it. As epidemiologists and music enthusiasts, with Pandemic Rhythms we aimed to reveal the sound of COVID-19 waves, by performing a data sonification, that is, a conversion of data patterns into an audible soundtrack. Sonification may complement standard approaches to conveying science by offering an auditory perception, which is intuitively accessible to most, including non-academic audiences. In a recent work, we extracted publically available national data of COVID-19 cases in Denmark from March 1, 2020, to March 1, 2022. For each week, we generated a 1-sec sound with a frequency (Hz) of two times the square root of the weekly number of new COVID-19 cases. Thus, imminent low frequencies reflect fewer cases, whereas higher pitch sounds tell of greater numbers of cases. Throughout, we introduced intercurrent sounds corresponding to the major public health policies implemented in Denmark: first, the shrieking sound of the lockdown; then, a hopeful tear at the introduction of vaccination; and finally, a blast signaling the end of restrictions. To turn this sonification into a sensible, meaningful experience that is representative of how the pandemic may have been perceived, we processed tone and timbre to reflect the dramatic and sudden reality faced by citizens. This is how our work—“pandemic rhythmics”—traces two years of a mute yet planetary phenomenon, making the COVID-19 waves audible to the human ear.

A few other scientists/artists carried out initiatives to enable a sensorial, aural perception of the pandemic. For instance, Pedro Rebelo at the Sonic Arts Research Centre, Queen’s University Belfast, produced a sonification based on data from the WHO Situation Reports. Another work by an Italian cultural research centre—named “HER: She Loves Data” – used the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. Finally, a work by Rayam Soeiro and colleagues at the Music, Communication and Technology programme, University of Oslo, was based on combined data from multiple sources.

Sound-tracking the COVID-19 pandemic can be regarded as a translation of an inaudible phenomenon into a sensory experience, which entails entangling approaches born to art and science: it is a search for auditory aesthetics supporting a scientific surveillance and monitoring of a planetary public health issue. From a public health perspective, to ensure an effective and appropriate societal response to the pandemic it is crucial to gain endorsement of the population for a collective action, which is conditional on citizens understanding the COVID-19 evolution. While efforts have been put into data visualisation to communicate the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, little attention has been given to the possibilities of data sonification. Major discourses meant to raise awareness of the outbreak within the population—such as the “flatten the curve” strategy—relied on forms of visualisation that required scientific literacy and rational thinking, rather than sensory perception. Just as a sudden shriek piercing the background rumble may be more effective to communicate danger than numbers and statistics, we believe that providing citizens with a sensory experience of the COVID-19 pandemic evolution could have been strategic, in complement to national statistics and public health discourses. Indeed, our human ability to perceive unseeable waves in our surrounding relies on our primary sense of hearing. From noise to harmonics and melodies, invisible vibrations in the air are translated into audible sounds by our ear, thereby making them perceivable. Perhaps except for the composer, a series of notes played on a piano are better appreciated by listening, rather than looking at a score on a sheet or soundwaves on a screen. Similarly, sonifying the COVID-19 data could allow for a direct sensory engagement of the audience with the pandemic evolution. Contrary to curves displayed on a screen or a board, perceiving sounds requires neither scientific literacy nor intellectualisation, but the primary sense of hearing. In this regard, data sonification may be a powerful instrument to democratise knowledge about the pandemic to all strata of the society, including citizens educated and non-educated in medical sciences.

This auditory, sensate knowledge of the pandemic provided by data sonification could be complemented by other types of scientific/artistic approaches. For instance, our primary senses of sight or touch could be reached by artworks playing with lights and colors or textures. Combining media (sounds, visuals, and textures or motions) could make a dynamic use of multiple aesthetics for a synergic sensory experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we are not aware of such synaesthetic artworks, we invite the medical community to expand curiosity towards current scientific and artistic research works in response to a planetary public health issue.

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