When you think of the sounds of the ocean, you might think of waves pounding on the shore or the call of a humpback whale. But can the ocean create music?
In a sense, it can. Noah Germolus, a third-year MIT-WHOI Joint Program chemical oceanography student, converts chemical data he’s gathered in the ocean into musical notes he plays on his tenor sax. His original compositions are not only interesting to the ear, but offer a unique window into the chemical makeup of different areas of the ocean.
The idea grew out of Synergy II, a volunteer-based program aimed at conveying ocean science through artistic expression. For the program, Germolus paired up with a former museum director and contemporary artist, Heather Stivison. They are working together on a four-painting exhibit that Germolus describes as “expressively representative” of ocean chemistry.
“Working with Heather got me looking at art a bit differently,” he says. “But I’m not a visual artist, so I wanted to stimulate a different sense and turn the same data that was used to inspire the paintings into music.”
Germolus is passionate about music and has played in rock bands as a saxophone player and singer since his undergrad days. He’s also had a long-time fascination with chemistry, something that stems from his own realization that chemicals are essential to the life of every living cell.
“Music and chemistry complement each other, and this project is probably the only time I've tried to so explicitly connect the two things,” he says. “I've tried writing lyrics about chemistry before, but believe me: they were either hopelessly obtuse or tiringly pedantic.”
To convert ocean data into tunes—a process formally known as data sonification—Germolus ran seawater samples taken from Cape Cod and Bermuda through a liquid chromatography system and mass spectrometer. The instruments quantify chemical compounds in the samples, sometimes hundreds or thousands of them, and represents them in graphs known as chromatograms. Larger peaks in the graph represent more abundant chemicals, while smaller peaks are rarer chemicals.
This sample of music was translated from inshore ocean chemistry data into sheet music and played by Noah Germolus on his tenor saxophone. (Photo by Daniel Hentz, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Germolus focused on five biomolecules in particular: tryptophan, glutamic acid, pantothenic acid, thymidine, and 5'-(methylthio)adenosine (MTA). “I'm interested in these compounds because of their behavior outside cells,” he says, “and how those behaviors may contribute to what microbes have to compete with to survive in the ocean.”
Once the data was processed, they were output into specialized software that converts the measurement values into sheet music. The pitch of each musical note corresponds to the abundance of chemicals in the various water samples: More concentrated chemicals translate to higher-pitch notes and vice-versa. “I got six times more peaks from the coastal samples than anything in the middle of the ocean,” Germolus says. This is due to two factors: the complexity of runoff from land and the rich coastal biology.
Fortunately for the listener, variations in the ocean’s chemical makeup allows for variation in the songs, and prevents them from becoming endless sequences of sax screech. “The hard part is figuring out how to make it all sound musical, or at least somewhat pleasurable to listen to,” he says.
This, he says, requires taking some creative liberties. He alters the length of individual notes, for example, and organizes them into measures for more of an arranged sound.
During our Zoom meeting, he held up a printout of one of his compositions, and then reached over to grab his saxophone. He rested the mouthpiece on his lower lip and a second later, out came a frenetic, scale-like chorus of biomolecules. It sounded a lot like jazz.
The jury’s still out as to how catchy these chemical tunes are. But if you know little to nothing about the chemical makeup of the ocean and how it varies in different areas, these lively tracks will open your ears to ocean nuances that are otherwise impossible to hear.