Music of the peers

Some notes towards a project I’d like to do. I think turning our paths through the world into collaborative auditory maps would be a wonderful thing.

Exploring links between music and mathematics in a networked mobile system

This project would develop software capable of analysing the positions of a group of learners relative to each other and streaming music generated computationally using the qualities of the group’s shape back to each learner, allowing members of the group to receive auditory feedback on the shape of the group, and to manipulate the audio stream through positioning their bodies differently in space.

For example, five learners, each with a mobile device capable of broadcasting its location (through GPS, network triangulation or similar), might be the vertices of a five-sided polygon, as imagined from above. Qualities of this shape – the interior angles, the length of the sides, the regularity of the shape, the surface area it covers, the length of time the shape has persisted – could map to musical features – dynamics, frequency range, degree of polyphony, range of instruments, different thematic material, degree of harmony – that could be used by software in generating a musical response.

The software would be designed to enable the precise nature of the correspondence between geometric quality and musical feature to be set by users themselves, allowing learners and teachers to explore the connections between the shapes made in space and the ways they can be analysed to an appropriate degree of complexity, and to represent the relationships between shape and harmony in the way they feel is most appropriate. Regular shapes might lead to more harmonious music; shapes sustained for a longer period might be louder than those that persist only briefly; serendipitous figures might be rewarded with specially-chosen vocal samples; learners might be guided towards target shapes through more attractive or moving musical forms; basic musical rules might be used to chart the stochastic movements of students travelling home, producing auditory geographies of familiar territories: a school song might be written by the movements of a victorious sports team during their final match.

The pedagogic value of this system might lie primarily in the capacity for supporting cross-curricular exploration, the participatory design of learning activities by learners themselves and the opportunities it presents for learning across age groups, with more able or older students preparing geo-acoustic systems for younger students to experience, or technologically more fluent students realising other students’ ideas about the relationships between shape and music.

Additionally, from a research perspective, the embodied nature of learners’ interactions within the geo-acoustic system is modally distinct from more usual forms of interaction with these subjects and presents an interesting and novel set of questions around the ways in which intellectual understanding relates to physical bodies, as well as being an opportunity to foreground current issues in education debates, not least perhaps the opportunity to explore more rigorously popular notions of “kinaesthetic intelligence” and to promote physical activity within an educational context. The nature of the activities designed by teachers and learners might well resonate with current interest in the potential educational value of pervasive and augmented reality gaming.

Despite this interdisciplinary focus, there are a number of traditional subject areas addressed in the development and use of such software. The following list is indicative rather than comprehensive.

  • Geometry — understanding the ways in which practical geometry abstracts shape from the physical world and the language mathematicians use to describe geometric shapes and relationships
  • Acoustic theory — models of synthesis, tone and timbre
  • Music — composition, generative approaches to music creation, music theory
  • Computer science — understanding networks, representing and manipulating variables using programming languages
  • Psychology of perception — making sense of the world through auditory cues, proprioception and mental schemata
  • History of science — Pythogarean notions of order and harmony, and how far these relate to current ideas about the way we understand the natural world to be ordered

Additionally, exploring the possible activities that this software might support could lead to explorations of the ways in which information can be presented through sound (sonification) and the various groups in society who might find this approach to sharing information about their environment beneficial, as well as supporting conversations about sound design in media, noise pollution, the ethics of location-aware software and the ways in which people’s individual actions contribute to larger effects.