Fusing sound with image is part of our culture, from Fantasia to MTV to most crime shows’ “vocal recognition” graphs. Music visualizations come packaged with mp3 players so that you can see moving paintings of your favorite songs as you listen to them.
As information visualization becomes an art form in its own right, designers are using music visualizations to educate rather than to decorate. Here are three tools that are not only beautiful, but also useful – visualization tools that use visual perception to augment the understanding of sound.
Understand Music’s Structure with the Music Animation Machine
You’re already very familiar with a low-tech but effective means of music visualization – musical notation. The linear system of notes, clefs, staves, and other symbols communicates sound in a way that is meaningful to a performer.
The Music Animation Machine is a visualization system that works on similar principles, but it’s geared toward the listener. Colored bars in a “pitch space” represent notes; higher bars represent a higher pitch. Multiple instruments’ harmony lines are displayed in the same space, so the mathematical relationships between chords and harmonies are represented as spatial relationships between instruments’ paths in the pitch space. The elusive mathematical relationships between complementary tones become logical, thanks to the Music Animation Machine’s visualization.
Understand Composition Structure with The Shape of Song
Bach, Three of the Goldberg Variations
In basic graphic design, you learn that the balance between unity and variety ensures that a composition has both cohesion and interest. This is true for music, too. The Shape of Song reveals a song’s repeated structures by creating orbs around a time line to link recurrent musical features.
The result is a rippled-looking visualization with stunning concentric circles that connect the introduction of a musical phrase to its triumphant return. Long classical compositions make especially interesting maps. The Shape of Sound uses spatial composition to underscore temporal relationships in musical composition.
Learn To Play Music with Synthesia
One of pop culture’s most explosive uses for music visualization is the rhythm-based video game. Dance Dance Revolution was the first big hit to translate musical phrases into video symbols that coach the user to provide a visualization through dance. Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have nudged the visualization further, prompting the user to take part in an interactive pantomime of instrument prowess.
The next logical step in gameplay-style visualization was to use the symbol language of games like Guitar Hero to teach people how to play real instruments. The Synthesia game was the first well-known application to use this kind of video visualization to teach piano skills. Players now compete against each other in digitized recitals, and online piano instructors use Synthesia to get their lessons to a larger audience.
Artists like Kandinsky and Klee often compared painting to musical constructs; they saw a relationship between what people hear and what they see. Music visualization uses this relationship to strengthen the appreciation of sound. Adding a visual component makes music more accessible, more entertaining, and adds another avenue for the transfer of aesthetic information.