Last week NPR got a lot of flak for their spots on presidential fundraising results as represented by seconds of music. They played "Staying Alive" for Democrats and "I Will Survive" for Republicans. Listeners responded that these spots were "stupid" and "grating," but I admire NPR's creative use of sound length to represent numbers. We do so much data analysis with our eyes; why not format information for the ears, especially when it's going to be consumed in situations like driving, when the eyes are otherwise occupied?
Science backs me up on this. See Seed Magazine's article on sonification of data: "Auditory representation enables recognition of "certain patterns...that you wouldn't be able to see in the [visual] sense," said Marty Woldorff, associate director of Duke's Center for Cognitive Neurosciences and an expert in sensory perception. Vision tends to work best for spatial data, naturally, but it's been established that we process temporal information better by hearing it. For instance, abnormal patterns in EEGs are better grasped by ear than eye, allowing for a quicker diagnosis of epilepsy and other disorders."
And even dearer to my not-quite-a-programmer heart, see the University of Northumbria's research on troubleshooting software bugs by sound: "The constructs of the Pascal programming language can be categorized hierarchically into two classes -- selections and iterations -- which, in turn, have sub-classes... For instance, in the iteration class, the language has a pair of similar bounded loops,: "FOR... TO" and "FOR... DOWNTO". It also has a pair of unbounded loops: "REPEAT" and "WHILE". The researchers used a common theme for each class, and wrote musical motifs that were variations on that theme to make the similar REPEAT and WHILE loops sound distinct, but more similar to each other than to the bounded loops. At the same time, all four of the phrases representing loops sounded similar enough to each other that they could be distinguished as being in the iteration class rather than the selection class."
I'd love to give my eyes a rest and be able to do at least part of my job by listening to data rather than staring at a computer screen. Maybe in my next life I'll be a piano tuner; until then I urge those NPR complainers to re-think their criticism. You don't have to like the song selections, but the concept really works.