Some time ago, on a warm Friday afternoon, when my mind was wandering, I was gazing vaguely at some flow graphs, trying to prepare for a lecture for my River Ecology class the following Monday. The flow graphs were from a variety of river systems around the world. Some of the rivers, like the Amazon and Mississippi, had very regular ups and downs, like a regular heartbeat. Others, like the Darling and Cooper Creeks, had some serious irregularities. But it also occurred to me that the patterns of flow looked not unlike the top part of a sound wave. You know the one – like you see when they play a voice recording on the television, to give you some visuals with the sound. It was then the seed of an idea began to germinate.
Rivers as inspiration for music
Being inspired by nature when creating art goes back a long, long way. Landscape painting, of course, is an archetypal example of this. Rivers have also inspired artists. Poets and prose writers have penned countless lines dedicated to the beautiful and peaceful, as well as the roaring, seething, catastrophic, nature of rivers. Composers – like Strauss (Blue Danube), Smetana (The Moldau) and Duke Ellington (The River Suite) – have also sought inspiration from rivers and their flow. More recent river-inspired works include Peter Sculthorpe’s Riverina Dreaming, Sean O’Boyle’s River Symphony, and Orbert Davis’ The Chicago River.
I can’t not include Ravel’s lovely, evocative, sparkling piano piece, Jeux d’Eau (I prefer the translation Playing Water) in this group, because the composer was clearly inspired by the movement and sound of water as it bubbles and tinkles over waterfalls. Apparently he wrote a quote on the manuscript from the de Régnier poem Cité des eaux: “River god laughs as the water tickles him…”
But, as I’ve said, these are all river-inspired works. Admittedly, they are some of the most wonderful pieces of music you could come across. But what about music created from actual river flow?
Data from nature into music
Using data derived from nature to make music is also not particularly new. And indeed, there are many online programs available to take any sort of data – such as random numbers, fractals, sine functions – and from them, allocate notes in a scale and create some sort of ‘music’. It’s not hard to do. What is hard, as I soon found out, is to make a sequence of data, such as river flow data, sound any good.
As an amateur musician myself, I know that music is not simply a series of notes that match a musical scale. For fear of simplifying things too much, apart from the basic sequence of notes which form a melody, other important components of any musical composition include: the key (in Western music, based on the first note of a scale, and an ordered sequence of tones and semi-tones); the time signature (how many beats of a particular duration in each bar); phrasing (grouping of sequences of notes); dynamics (relative volume and intensity); and harmony (or the relationship among the notes being played – the chords – either together or in succession).
Some of these components of music are the core structure of the composition, like the key and time signatures (although these can vary, depending on the arrangement). Others are more to do with how the music is played – the interpretation. But irrespective of the genre or ‘quality’ of the musical composition – Beethoven or Sex Pistols – there is a lot, lot more to music than the sounding of a random sequence of notes.
Experiencing river flow in a new way
Maybe it is too much to expect river flow data to be musical. But perhaps turning flow data into sound can provide a novel way of experiencing a river’s natural fluctuations: its rises and falls; its high points and low points; its boring, tedious, flat-lined baseflows and its soaring, surging, catastrophic floods. Perhaps it can engage the senses in a way that graphs do not, irrespective of the melodiousness – or otherwise – of the sound.
Here is an audio file created from monthly river flow data from the Flow at Murray River at Swan Hill, 1987-2005 (the link will take you to a public Dropbox location, and to a midi file which you can download and listen to). I have used a church organ and a fairly slow tempo, to try and give you that feel of big and slow, like the Murray in its middle reaches.* The data represents monthly flows over an eight year period. It’s not brilliant, is it? But you get the picture of what is possible. You should be able to hear that the first half of the record was during a relatively wet period, from 1987-1996, after which a drought kicked in and lasted for much of the rest of the record. Lower flows – and therefore, lower pitches – tend to dominate the second half of the record. It is more monotonous and doesn’t have the diversity of pitch, like the first half.
It might also be possible to use river flow as sound, in a novel way, to experience the flows of a free-flowing ‘natural’ river system, and compare those with a dammed, regulated river system. You could hypothesize how different they would sound. I’m not going to preempt what you hear, beyond that the Ovens River is a largely natural system in south-eastern Australia and it floods every year.
On the other hand, the Goulburn River is a heavily regulated system, with a number of dams on it, the largest being Lake Eildon.
The period over which I play the sound of the river encompasses a wet period, followed by several years of drought. The Ovens River continued to flood in most years, despite the drought, whereas the Goulburn River did not – largely because any high flows that occurred were captured by Lake Eildon. See what you think. Here is what the Ovens River sounds like and here is what the Goulburn River sounds like.
I’ve been a bit sneaky and used a major key – often considered more lively and positive – for the Ovens and a minor key – often considered dark and sombre – for the Goulburn.
And, just in case you wanted to see from where the ‘music’ has come , here are the two flow data you’ve just been listening to.
Sonification – the process of turning data into sound – is not new and has been used in a variety of ways, such as in diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmia or measuring radiation (the Geiger counter), as an alternative to detecting patterns visually or where visibility is problematic. Our ability to detect rhythm, pitch and loudness aurally is very sophisticated, and it is a little surprising that we don’t use it more in science and technology. Soundscape Ecology – the merging of ecology with the collection of sounds coming from a landscape – is another intriguing way that sound may be used to detect change or anomalies, in this case to the environment.
Apart from just a bit of fun, and a different way to experience river flow data, I’d be interested in people’s thoughts about how this approach I have described might be used – if at all – to further understanding of flow alteration in rivers. Or perhaps this might be simply an interesting and novel way to communicate science to the general public.
* If you are interested in knowing how I created the ‘music’ from the river flow data, I used the freeware program Compose!. This program allows you to enter numerical data, and it has a standard process for fitting the data to octaves, keys, tempo, instruments etc., but also allows you to play around with each of these if you wish. It is a bit clunky and is somewhat limited in what it can do, but for the uninitiated, it is easy to learn.