Can you hear what’s in the air?

The WM-Air team have been working with sound artist, Robert Jarvis, as part of an innovative, NERC-funded public engagement project which uses sound to enable us to ‘hear’ air quality data. This work is being presented to the public as part of ‘The Air We Breathe‘ exhibition at The Exchange, Birmingham City Centre.

For those who are unable to visit the physical exhibition, we have included the presentations below. The sound compositions aim to communicate air quality data from urban and rural locations, at difference times of the day, and across Birmingham and the UK. This audible, visceral experience invites listeners to ‘hear’ air pollution.

There are three short audio-visual presentations for you to enjoy below, along with an accompanying audience guide which provides details about how the presentations were composed and the information they are communicating.

We hope this engagement piece stimulates your curiosity, improves your understanding of how to manage your own exposure to poor air quality and inspires you to start reducing your own emissions. (And if you would like to leave us your feedback, there is a short form at the bottom of this page.) Enjoy!

1) LOCATION MATTERS  (The importance of place)

Listen to the difference in air quality in the countryside and in towns and cities across the UK:

In the presentation above, you see and hear the annual average air quality readings across urban and rural locations. These vary enormously for the different settings, and so a sound has been used that can cope with this range, connect with the pastoral settings, and also convey an increasing tension as the locations with higher pollutant levels are introduced. The data was converted directly into frequency and assigned the closest musical notes, and then synchronised with the displayed air quality readings, with the nitric oxide (NO) levels sounding in the left and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the right. The map on the left-hand-side of the screen shows the location.

2) PICK YOUR MOMENT  (The difference the time of day makes)

Listen to the changes in pollution across the West Midlands, hour by hour, expressed as sound:

In the presentation above, a map displays the changing levels of nitrogen dioxide, hour by hour, during an average day across the seven counties of the West Midlands. Each county has its own place in the stereo spectrum, west to east being represented as left to right. The different levels of pollution are assigned a musical tone, with the higher levels being mapped to higher pitch. The volume is mapped to pollution spread – so, if a pollution level extends halfway across a county, then it is given a volume setting of 0.5; if it’s a third, then it would be 0.33. The higher and louder a note, the greater and more extensive the pollution.

3) CHOOSE YOUR PATH CAREFULLY (Taking the scenic route)

Listen to the changes in pollutant levels along a route across Birmingham, from the rural outskirts through the city centre:

Here, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels are presented for an imagined route from Lickey Hills on Birmingham’s outskirts through the city centre and out again to Sutton Park.  The journey is traced on the accompanying map, and synchronised with the sound representing the rising and falling particulate pollutants PM2.5 and PM10 in the left and right channels respectively. At each location the nitrogen dioxide levels are represented as three-note chords, denoting the minimum, mean and maximum levels of modelled air quality data for each site. According to Google Maps it’s possible to cycle this route in just under two hours.  With this composition the journey is made in just under two minutes!

Engagement project developed by Robert Jarvis (Independent Sound Artist), Dr Catherine Muller, Prof William Bloss, Dr James Hodgson, Dr Jian Zhong (University of Birmingham) 

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Growing Roots Public Engagement Call (GR030)

We’d love to hear what you think about this sound project, in order to explore its impact, evaluate its success and make changes in the future. Please fill in the quick survey below and let us know if you enjoyed it or have any comments, feedback or suggestions. Thank you!