Big Beautiful Data: How to See a Song

This week’s big beautiful data series dwells around the media and entertainment sector. First off, we have the work of New York Times data artist Jer Thorp, “Visualizing 138 Years of Popular Science Magazine.”  Thorp was asked by Popular Sciene Magazine for a data art piece that explored their entire archive of publication history that spans for almost 140 years.

Each atom represents one issue of their magazine. They are shaded with color extracted from the issue cover using a color clustering routine, and their size correlates to the number words in each issue.  A pile of these atoms forms a year cluster, and a pile of year clusters forms decade clusters. Along with Mark Hansen, who’s working with him on the project, they also managed to show how different technical and cultural terms have become fashionable and obsolete by the way the magazine uses them from inception to date.

“Picking out interesting words from all of the available choices (pretty much the entire dictionary) was a tricky part of the process. I built a custom tool in Processing that pre-visualized the frequency plots of each word so that I could go through many, many possibilities and identify the ones that would be interesting to include in the final graphic. This is a really common approach for me to take – building small tools during the process of a project that help me solve specific problems. For this visualization, I actually ended up writing 4 tools in Processing – only one of which contributed visually to the final result.”

See your songs

Data visualization blurs the line between what’s meant to be seen and what’s not. Songs, for example, are supposed to be invisible and intangible to the naked eye, but they can take form by visualizing them with a computer program. “The Shape of Song” art piece demonstrates how music can go beyond our auditory senses. The visualization of Chopin’s Mazurka in F# Minor illustrates the complex, nested structure of the piece, while that of Philip Glass’ Candy Man 2 shows two different tracks of the same piece, reflecting on the underlying elegance and simplicity of the music.

Still music-related, David Perry has unintentionally delivered a music video that shows Bitcoin’s developmental history. To create the video, he used a visualization tool called Gource “which visually shows the development history of a given project as derived from Git/SVN logs.” The video shows the faceless developer Satoshi Nakamoto updating and developing the Bitcoin project on Github. Along the way, other actors arrive on the scene and vanishes leaving colored dots that represent development. The music video’s most scintillating moment happens at 4:27 (April 2011) as development is at its highest.

Finally, flight404 visualizes Radiohead as he was supposed to participate in a competition organized by the band. However, he ended up not sending his piece because “You could swap it out with any electronica song and it would actually fit a little better. My piece just doesn’t feel Radioheadish.” Moreover, he felt that the competition is looking on the notion of Storyboards and Animations; much like a “a user-made Paranoid Android type video. Something with a story. Something with characters. Something with personality. And I am afraid my piece lacks in those three categories.” But nonetheless, he created a really beautiful piece. Here’s the entire piece detailing how he did it.