Using music to communicate science: too good to be true?

Image credit: all that improbable blue (via Flickr)

Image credit: all that improbable blue (via Flickr)


20 hours is a long time to listen to atonal beeps and sporadic glitches. Not least when you have to compare them to other beeps and glitches, choose which you like best, and then listen to more. But what if your choice morphed the beeps into melody and the glitches into kick-drums; what if they evolved? DarwinTunes shows music evolution in action, but is it an effective way of communicating science?

“It’s a fascinating journey, really, into sound. And if it was easy for people to use and install, it would be a useful educational or public engagement tool, but I doubt that many people would stick at it for the 20 hours you need.”

Dr Bob McCallum is the creator of DarwinTunes, an online music engine modeled on the same basic dynamics that govern natural selection and evolution. Listeners choose the most attractive sounds, with taste acting as the selection pressure, and the acoustic offspring flourish. It’s evolution as music – the conceptual parallels between the two systems run deep. The site has developed a cult following, but do listeners really understand the process of evolution any better as a result?

Dr McCallum explained: “The plan is to keep the evolutionary mechanisms pure enough. We keep it purely as blind selection etcetera, and we want to visualise some of what’s happened historically, using phylogenies or animations to show what’s happened to the genomes. But I think for it to work our users should be shielded from this sort of technical stuff.”

The presumed necessity to shield users from the science reveals the heart of the issue: the difficulty of truthfully translating science into a non-scientific metaphor. Some quarters would even argue that this type of engagement-as-education is inherently impossible, as each step toward allegory dictates that some science is lost. The final product is a vague shadow of the former scientific principles, with no shape or detail.

Music itself has been employed as a tool to engage people with science many times in the past, and has had some success in verbal learning. Research shows that textual recollection is better when learnt through song, but it’s hard to see how this can be relevant for anyone over the age of 9-years-old. DarwinTunes and similar projects aim to do something different, but it often seems that the more engaging they are, the harder it is to decipher what they are communicating.

It’s an awkward quandary, given that music is arguably the most ubiquitous of the arts. Recent studies have shown that listening to music can activate neural pleasure and reward pathways in similar ways to food, drugs, and sex. So the potential is painfully obvious, but how can it be harnessed?

The problem, perhaps, comes with popularization of such ideas. While DarwinTunes is a fascinating experiment for anyone interested in music, Dr McCallum himself admits that he is not sure whether even the most dedicated of DarwinTunes followers understand the mechanics of evolution any better. And this is surely the most interactive project around, and one of the more complete metaphorically.

The DarwinTunes creators are more than aware of this delicate balance. To use another metaphor for his metaphor, Dr McCallum said: “So by colourising pictures of remote nebulae they become beautiful, and people might use them as their screensavers. You bring the people in, but do you really help them understand nebulae at all?”

Perhaps though, we are both missing the point. A post on this blog by Professor Steve Fuller spoke of Brian Cox and his great skill in promoting the wonderment of science, even if it doesn’t mean his many admirers are now skilled astronomers or particle physicists. No, Cox’s value is in his infectious curiosity and amazement at the natural world, something that most scientists would purport to drive them through all their pipetting and grant-applications. And maybe DarwinTunes and other musical ventures do the same. Maybe great metaphor only needs to speak of evolution to evoke amazement. If anything has the power to nod the masses in a certain direction, it’s music and if that road happens to be paved by natural selection and homologous recombination, surely that’s no bad thing.

Simon Roach is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.



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