How to Make Music with an Active Volcano

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Meet Mount Etna. Europe’s tallest active volcano, this Sicilian landmark has a knack for inspiring artists. After being referenced by such literary giants as Homer, Virgil, and Jules Verne, Etna also earned a breathtaking cameo in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, when George Lucas’ crew managed to capture some wonderful footage of a 2002 eruption.

Despite this, you might not think that a volcano would have much musical potential. Enter Domenico Vicinanza, an Italian particle physicist best known for developing specialized "sonification" software with which to study Etna’s sub-surface activity patterns. Through this type of data-gathering program, seismic movements are converted into audible sound waves. Doing so helps researchers contextualize local trends—including pre-eruption warning signs.

For a quick example, here’s a 2011 Japanese earthquake sonification:

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By assigning distinct musical notes to every piece of a given frequency, unforgettable melodies can be crafted. “The principle is quite simple,” Vicinanza explains. “Growing data, growing pitch. Decreasing data, decreasing pitch … the melody changes following exactly the same profile of the scientific data.”

With that in mind, check out this mp3 of Edna’s rumblings as a lively piano rhapsody.

And volcanology’s only the beginning! In 2012, Vicinanza whipped up some rather charming tunes by using information gathered at Switzerland’s CERN supercollider: 

Today, there’s even a scientific sonification YouTube channel (created in part by the University of Michigan), which employs a chorus of algorithmically-programmed instruments. We bet you’ll never imagine solar wind quite the same way again.

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July 2, 2014 - 1:00pm
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