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Heard on NPR’s All Things Considered - CRESCENDO: Turning environmental impact data into music

A musical piece created from environmental data was presented at a USF Symphonic Band & Wind Ensemble concert on Feb. 6. The music is written in two parts: Sanctuary, which represents the coral reef under seige and Cardinal Flow that takes you through the ups and downs of red tide.

By Sarah Sell, University Communications and Marketing

When Heather O’Leary started attending concerts held by USF’s School of Music in 2021, she loved how the performances made her feel.

As an anthropologist, she was moved and inspired by the ebb and flow of the music. She often wondered: could her own data touching on environmental impacts be turned into music that people could enjoy and understand?

“I was listening to all this beautiful music and thinking about my research and what I do every day,” said O’Leary, assistant professor of Anthropology at USF St. Petersburg. “I was thinking how sound could make my spreadsheets come alive. The challenge was making sense out of 50 columns of data that span over three years.”

Earlier this month, that challenge was met. O’Leary’s research data on the depletion of coral reefs due to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and the impact of Harmful Algae Blooms on coastal economies was converted and performed as a piece of music by the university’s Symphonic Band & Wind Ensemble.

The collaboration began with the publication of a paper. O’Leary was part of a research team that found the red tide bloom in Florida from 2017-2019 cost tourism-related businesses an estimated $2.7 billion. The findings were significant, but the data was difficult to understand by non-experts.

Thinking back to the music, O’Leary loaded her spreadsheets into a sonification machine, which converted the data into sound. She thought it was exciting but not exactly what she was hoping for. So, she reached out to her colleague Matt McCutchen in USF’s College of the Arts.

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