Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Utilitarian Sounds: a Lecture by Dr. Thomas Hermann” – Angelo Zinna

In the opening of his lecture ,“Sonification for Sharing Auditory Perspectives on Data”, dr. Thomas Hermann described sounds as a tool to understand “what is hidden behind the numbers.” While data and statistics have traditionally been represented through visual renditions (such as graphs), Hermann argued that there are a variety of situations in which sound can be more effective in transmitting knowledge. Listening has been a neglected modality of absorbing information, but considering how well the human ear can interpret sound, applying sonification techniques to existing technologies can improve both the user’s experience and the effectiveness of the device.

Hermann explains that there is a difference between the artistic sonification, such as the one employed by Valery Vermeulen in the conversion of black hole data into music, and the scientific sonification crafted for the purpose of functionality. While the first is concerned with the translation of emotion and the aesthetics of sound, the latter’s objective is to create a reproducible, recognizable system that can be applied to different forms of data. The point of Hermann’s technique is to allow for rapid scanning, monitoring, interaction, and awareness of a specific set of information. Among the most effective examples are the sounds used to teach blind people the shape of mathematical curves, the alarm that rings when a car is becoming fuel-inefficient, or the audio that communicates to a surgeon if a patient is losing too much blood during a
surgical operation. In this sense, the type of sonification employed by Hermann is purely utilitarian and making the sound pleasant may be counterproductive to its primary goal of communicating information.

Adopting sound as a way to augment the experience of interaction with
technological tools provides great benefits because humans can listen while performing other activities, but also because sound does not require the ear to be oriented toward a specific direction in order to hear. An issue that arose during the follow-up questions part of the lecture, however, was the fact that people may perceive sound differently.Hermann argues that the sonification of data “points to something beyond its substance” but he explains that it is still not possible to rely on sound as a sole method of communication, as the person on the receiving end may not react with the same level of awareness. Sonification techniques, therefore, are still being explored as creative thinkers attempt to expand their scope by investigating which realms are suitable for this form of information transmission.


  • Hermann, Thomas. “Sonification for Sharing Auditory Perspectives on Data.”Transmissions in Motion Seminar, 19 February 2020, Grote Zaal, Muntstraat 2A, University of Utrecht.
  • Vermeulen, Valery. “Composing Data: Making Music from Space, Deep Space and Black Holes.” Transmissions in Motion Seminar, 13 November 2019, Grote Zaal, Muntstraat 2A, University of Utrecht.