What is the Sound Equivalent of a Visualization?

Visualizations are well-studied, understood, and popularized. They are a part of every day life—we see weather maps, activity circles, and stock charts every day.

We know the names of the patterns: bar chart, pie chart, line chart, etc. We learn them in grade school. You probably put one in your slide deck last week.

I’ve often wondered why this was not true of Sonifications. If you’re like me, this term will be new to you. It actually took me a while to find it—my google searches came up with Auralizations and Audibilizations first. But, if you’re talking about trying to understand data with sound, the correct term seems to be Sonification.

There is a body of research about it in academia, but it doesn’t extend much outside of there. As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent to Edward Tufte’s visualization books, but for sound. There is no way to make them in Excel.

But they are all around us. We hear, make, and use them all of the time.

Consider just the ones you might encounter while driving.

When you honk your horn, you are conveying information about your car and mood to others. Similarly, an ambulance uses a siren to convey their position and direction to you.

My car tells me (with beeps) if I am drifting out of my lane. It gets even madder if I am about to hit something. It beeps whenever I shift into reverse. Turning signals remind me to turn them off with a steady metronome-like beat. So do the hazard lights.

I get warnings when my lights are left on, the keys are locked in, or if I don’t fully shut the door.

If my radio is tuned to traffic, that’s a kind of Sonification (data -> speech). My GPS does the same kind of thing for directions.

Radar detectors buzz if they detect the fuzz.

So, I hope I have convinced you that Sonifications are common. In my own thinking I have come up with these few similarities that seem to tie them together

  • Sonifications are real-time
  • Sonifications are actionable
  • Sonifications interrupt you while you are engaged doing something else

This is why we use them in a car. You are completely busy, with your vision fully engaged in a life or death activity. The sonifications are there to tell you that something important needs to be done right now.