2 Background and Motivation
Researchers have defined sonification as the “use of non-speech audio to convey information,” or more specifically, “the transformation of data relations into perceived relations in an acoustic signal for the purposes of facilitating communication or interpretation” (Kramer et al. 1999). Although this definition fits well for the many applications of sonification that are targeted for specialists (i.e., those trained in the context of application), recent work has revealed the ways in which the experiences of non-specialists can become problematic (Supper 2014). At root, the problem is related to the homologous relation between sonification and music, socially-constructed limitations of listening, and the appropriation of the term into contexts where there is no desire for communication or need for interpretation of the data relations by listeners (Sterne 2003; Vickers 2017).
The need to challenge these intellectually retrograde conceptions of listening arises in the desire to create sonifications that are public-facing and even frequently listened to by large numbers of people. Such a “killer-app” would assist in disseminating and convincing the general public of the utility of sonification (Supper 2012). One vision for how this might occur is the transformation of sonification into a socio-cultural medium where “the general public tunes into pop sonifications for listening enjoyment as well as useful information about the world” (Barrass 2012). Another possibility arises in the form of concert music, where an audience might appreciate a sonification not just for what it purports to convey (e.g., the title), but for the experiences garnered by comprehending the relationships inherent in the data itself (Ballora 2014a). In the present work, we propose that traditionally visual experiences such as going to a planetarium or viewing an eclipse could be substituted with or enhanced by a vivid and well-designed auditory experience.
2.1 Astronomy Sonification
Astronomy sonification is a rich place to explore the application of sonification for both specialists and audiences. As a microcosm of the entire field, some sonifications have been designed for specialists to assist in the exploration and analysis of large amounts of astronomical data (Alexander, Gilbert, Landi, Simoni, Zurbuchen and Roberts 2011; McGee, Van der Veen, Wright, Kuchera-Morin Alper and Lubin 2011), and others have been made by composers for music, performance, and film (Exploratorium 2017; Ballora 2014b). Our two works contribute to this field by targeting audio-driven educational shows for the general public as well as mobile auditory experiences of live geo-specific astronomical phenomenon.
Few astronomy sonification works have explicitly designed or evaluated their system based upon feedback from users or other stake-holders. One notable exception is the work of Quinton, McGregor, and Benyon (2016). To determine the data properties and mappings to use for their auditory model of the solar system, they conducted an interview with a planetarium expert, a trained scientist, a teacher, and members of the general public. In a similar manner, we involved stakeholder and non-stakeholder members of the general public in determining both the data and mapping strategies that should be used. However, our work went a step further. Once these parameters were designed, we released them into the wild as planetorium experiences, which included marketing, publicity, live auditory experiences, audiences, and post-hoc critique and feedback.
2.2 The Missing Audience
In 2004 a sonification concert premiered at the Sydney Opera House Studio (Barrass, Whitelaw and Bailes 2006). The concert, entitled “Listening to the Mind Listening,” received a submission of 27 sonification mappings of the same EEG dataset by 38 composers. To select the final 10 pieces for the concert, a blind review committee of 34 composers, neuroscientists, sonification researchers, and concertgoers rated three submissions each according to aesthetics, mapping, accessibility, and overall impression. Answers to the questionnaire revealed that different factors contributed to the overall impression of the piece, reflecting group-level differences. In particular, for the concertgoer group, aesthetics was correlated with accessibility, which was also correlated with overall impression.
In our view, the “audience” has been a missing factor in public-facing sonification design-work. In particular, current thinking in sonification aesthetics has drawn upon the phenomenological experience of individuals, including their modes of listening (Grond and Hermann 2014), their aesthetic direction (Vickers, Hogg and Worrall 2017), and their embodiment (Roddy and Furlong, 2014). While these perspectives have added a great richness to listening theory and design guidelines, they have not sufficiently addressed the experiences of groups of co-situated non-specialist listeners attending to and directed towards a shared listening experience. It is inappropriate to project on such groups the evolved, encultured, and specialized forms of listening that originate with mappers, composers and music-theorists. Instead, we advocate an “audience-centered” design strategy wherein sonification designers cultivate an aesthetic experience for audiences aimed primarily at accessibility. Access to information the audience needs to hear and aural access to the data itself through creative but accessible mapping strategies.