Tuesday, 25 September 2012

AudioChem: The Sound of Chemistry

AudioChem is a software instrument that lets you play the sound of the different chemical elements.

I wrote the software back in 2008 as part of my undergraduation dissertation. It takes the emission spectrum (see below) of each element and turns it into a harmony, creating a unique sound. The software was written for Apple Mac and runs on OS X, up to OS 10.6. The download link is below. I'd really appreciate any feedback on the software, as it's still really in beta.



AudioChem is a software composition. I call it a composition since it did not assemble itself: it required construction on the basis of aesthetic principles. It is an example of data sonification, taking information about the elements of the Periodic Table as its starting point. In this respect, it is a totally systematic work, and yet both aesthetic choice and aleatory form are intrinsic elements of its construction and final form. It is an example of a Gesamtkunstwerk: a synthesis of different artforms that links general and specific, aesthetic and intellectual, forms of expression to create ‘super-complete thoughts’, denoting actions, things and qualities all at once. It also uses continuous change within the form-rhythm-pitch spectrum, while separating itself into discrete, perceivable objects. In this way, it brought together many of the different areas of thought that preoccupied me at the time.

At the time I wrote AudioChem, I was searching for ways to organise microtonal harmony into cohesive 'tonalities'. There seemed four main approaches possible:
  • The first approach is to use some sort of system, a set of formulae or algorithms. This was the approach used by the Serialists, for example, when tackling the issue of how to create cohesive 12-tone tonalities;
  • The second is more akin to musique concrète. If we view the world as the result of a set of processes or algorithms, the end product will have a certain kind of unity that we then simply record in the field and play back at home;
  • The third could be viewed as either an abstraction from, or an extension of, the second, collecting data from the real world to then turn into audible sound. This data sonification approach is the one I took here;
  • The final one is to use the creative imagination to provide a cohesive unity, for example in improvised performance.
I later somewhat rejected data sonification as a really fruitful avenue of aesthetic investigation, for reasons it would take too long to go into here. However, the results in this piece were intriguing and certainly worthy of note.

In terms of the sound, the data displayed is the emission spectra of the elements: the wavelengths of light emitted by the electrons of each element as they drop to a lower orbit round the nucleus of the atom; these wavelengths are then transposed into audible wavelengths of sound.

Here is an example of the kinds of sounds the programme generates:

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