Can an engine sing

Can an engine sing?

When British sound architect Tom Middleton was given the data gathered from Wärtsilä’s engine, he did what he does best – compose a song. We tell you how he did and, yes, we also have the song for you. Listen in.

Text: Jan Tazelaar Photo: Wärtsilä

A modern day engine provides a lot of information, in the form of data, about its functions. Generally, this data is used to monitor engine performance and predict maintenance needs. But it can be used to compose music, too.

This was proven earlier this year in Munich at Wärtsilä’s Ignite your digital heart event, where Wärtsilä internally kicked off its digital transformation journey with close to 500 employees, Digital Champions around the world. Data was one the key themes in the event, where British ‘sound architect’ Tom Middleton, with the help of the participants, all Wärtsilians, performed ‘Hear the Data’, an anthem based on Wärtsilä’s engine data.

“The inspiring brief immediately ignited a fire of creative excitement,” says Middleton recalling the time when he was asked to take on the task.

He was provided a graph and logs which included a day of data. Middleton set to work on this unprecedented assignment. The challenge was to turn endless rows of numbers (like rpms, power output, exhaust gas temperature, and ambient barometric pressure) into something audible and meaningful.

Can an engine sing2
A British sound architect Tom Middleton produced
a song using the data gathered from Wärtsilä's engines.

Talented machinery

Middleton is a famous British musician with a colourful resume. A trained graphic designer and classical musician, he developed a fascination for the limitless possibilities of electronic music very early on in life. Having produced hundreds of tracks, he has, for many years, toured the world as a DJ.

When he was approached to compose music from engine data, he had never heard of Wärtsilä. “I was deeply impressed by the brands global reach and impressive impact,” he recalls.

Middleton couldn’t stop at writing a mere piece of music. “I spent many months experimenting and proposing numerous options for turning the data into music. In addition, I added light effects and interaction with the audience. Everybody was to participate in a way that would do justice to the overall theme of digital transformation.”

What Wärtsilä eventually got, was far more than they had bargained for. Middleton had found ways to compose enjoyable music from the rows of engine data.

Wärtsilä machinery turned out to be surprisingly talented. “Engine sounds formed rhythms and bass. Then I started to search for universal musical patterns in the digital engine data, and I found them. They translated beautifully into pentatonic melodies and harmonies, very pleasing to the ear.”

The human input

In addition to performing the song at the event in Munich, Middleton added visual effects to the show and made the audience participate in two ways. First, he let them sing a text which everyone knows: ‘la’ from the solfeggio scale, incidentally the last syllable of Wärtsilä. And then, he had everybody give live input into the performance through 60 networked iPads.

“A clock provided the right in-cues, and every time someone hit an iPad, an orange dot on the screens would flash and another note would be added. The dots corresponded with global Wärtsilä locations.”

Middleton personally directed the performance and also played additional parts, live, while indicating the pitch of the notes to sing. “There was no rehearsal time. A few seconds of explaining was all the audience needed to participate.” The ‘Wärtsilä Choir and iPad Orchestra’ was a triumph and a delightful, appropriate coda to the event and segue into the after-dinner party at which Tom also played music.

One of Middleton’s passions is the science of psychoacoustics, the study of how sound affects the way our mind and body works. This explains why he is a sought-after consultant with architectural firms and brands.

“You can use sound to modulate thoughts and emotions. My mission is to use my research to improve the lives of people. With the Hear the Data experience, I was able to communicate the use of digital data and integrated human input via music and light.”

Well, at least in this case - Mission accomplished.

You can listen to the song here:

You can listen to the ringtone here:

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