Data Services Newsletter

Volume 3 : No 1 : March 2001

The music of earthquakes

Most people don’t associate earthquakes with music. Ray Styles in Washington state is an exception. He converts earthquake data to music for fun.

“My wife says I have way too many hobbies,” he admits. “I’m sure she’s right, but some are just too hard to resist.” Having been a wildlife biologist, software engineer, and artist, he likes a variety of challenges— and exploring new fields. “Transforming different experiences into unexpected new views of reality has always been at least amusing to me, and sometimes powerfully moving. I really like eliciting the extraordinary from the ordinary.” Ray began experimenting with music composing software last year. By carefully choosing musical instruments to represent streams of numbers, a composer using such software could produce a variety of sounds— some even quite musical.

“I recognized that this software can serve as a wonderful bridge between any form of data, and listenable music.” From his experience documenting the IRIS SEED manual years ago for Tim Ahern, he immediately thought of applying this new musical composition software to earthquake data. The result? “Over several evenings I was able to go from downloading IRIS data from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to a couple of pleasant tunes. They were relaxing and even inspiring. Even though I knew what they were— just streams of data from three seismogram channels— the final result astonished me. It’s not at all reminiscent of booms, creaks, or rumbles.” Instead, he first heard guitar, strings, even a trumpet, all in a mellow lullaby; then a piano in a peppy and catchy second song.

Map of the Loma Prieta event.
Figure 1: Map of the Loma Prieta event.

To listen to Ray’s creations, you can download these MIDI files:

(Data was taken from the PAS station in California.)

There’s one other earthquake and musical association for Ray: “I was once at a Scottish Robert Burns Night dinner a few years ago. Just as the piper was piping in the haggis, the rest of Seattle felt a strong quake. But those of us listening to the skirl of the pipes somehow missed it, and had to find out about it afterwards. To this day I think earthquakes and bagpipes go together.” But then again, he would— because piping is another of Ray’s hobbies!

by Tim Ahern (IRIS Data Management Center) and Ray Styles (N/A)

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