Stories Music of the (Tennis) Spheres

By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Data is beautiful.

So goes the oft-repeated mantra of graphic designers, scientists and journalists who look to turn measurements and raw numbers into easily digestible visualizations in the age of Big Data. But if data is beautiful, can it also be musical?

That’s the hope of musician James Murphy who is working to translate results from the U.S. Open tennis tournament into a melody and rhythm. Murphy, who is best known as the former front man of dance-punk band LCD Soundsytem, is working with engineers from IBM who have built an algorithm to help convert the aces, faults or game points into musical inputs.

“We’re going to generate almost 400 hours worth of music,” Murphy says in a promotion video. “Well I’m not going to play 400 hours worth of music. We’re setting up a machine to do that.”

Listeners might also need a machine to help them make it through the staggering resulting quantity, but the music from The US Open Sessions is available online and will be updated with music from each match through the Sept. 8 conclusion of the tournament.

What might be most striking about The US Open Sessions is it is actually only one of many efforts in recent years to turn the growing quantity of data we can collect into music.

In 2012, Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois converted data from blue-green algae to song by assigning the amount of algae to specific pitches and using measurements like chlorophyll concentration to decide chord progression. That same year, reggae band Echo Movement asked a lab from Georgia Tech to convert star data from the Kepler Telescope into a sample the band used for its album Love and Human Outreach.

New media professor Greg Neimeyer at University California at Berkeley and electronic music composer Chris Chafe from Stanford converted air pollution data into something resembling free jazz. Chafe has also worked with Stanford neurologist Josef Parvizi to turn signals from the brain during a seizure into a kind of music. Brainwaves were also a muse for Finnish computer scientists who tried turning information from the sleeping brain into melody.

The term for making music of data is sonification, and the new field is quickly growing. Whether the genre is novelty or will one day produce a magnum opus worthy of serious musical consideration is up for debate.

However, in some ways sonification is a continuation of a long tradition of looking to patterns in the natural world for artistic inspiration. The golden ratio is a much written about idea in mathematics, art and architecture that is based on a repeating proportion that is found frequently in geometry and nature.

Golden Ratio Shell Golden Ratio Art


In music, scholars have analyzed the music of composers ranging from Mozart to Bartók to Debussy using the ratio and have suggested that at least part of what makes their music so beloved is the audience’s subconscious recognition of this aesthetically pleasing and naturally occurring ratio. Musicologist Alan Gillmor wrote in his book on the composer that Erik Satie intentionally incorporated the ratio in pieces such as Sonneries de la Rose+Croix.

There is something inherently compelling about the idea that patterns and logic we see in the world around us can be replicated in music. So whether it’s data from a tennis player’s serve or the way birds arrange themselves on power lines — yes, that’s been tried, too — it shouldn’t surprise us when musicians look to capture the melodies that might be hidden in plain sight.