Algal Jazz

The radio show Living on Earth, produced by Public Radio International (thanks to their contributors and sponsors!), first carried this story about a biologist who intuited an interplay between marine microbes and jazz music.  The interview with that biologist is here, both as podcast and transcript. Thanks to the University of Washington’s Conservation magazine for bringing it back to our attention before it floated off on the horizon:

Music in the key of algae

In the age of Big Data, making sense of the information deluge is no small feat. But biologist and jazz-music fan Peter Larsen of Argonne National Lab thinks he has a powerful way to capture the complex interplay between microbial life and the physical environment: bebop music.

Larsen’s data-driven compositions are generated by observations collected at the L4 marine monitoring station, a data buoy operated by the U.K.’s Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Marine Biological Association. The buoy records weekly measurements of temperature, salinity, nutrient levels, and other parameters. In addition, researchers classify and measure the abundance of zooplankton and phytoplankton from samples collected at the site.

Putting together different combinations of these variables, Larsen generated four original compositions in the fluid, improvisational, bebop-jazz style, freeing himself from the more rigid structure of classical music. The piece titled “Bloom” musically charts—yes—blooms of rare microbial taxa against changes in chlorophyll and salinity. Microbe abundance translates into melody, and changes in the environmental conditions map onto chord changes. However, using Microbial Bebop’s algorithm, the melody from the same microbial data would sound different if played over chords representing a different parameter such as temperature, Larsen notes in a recent paper in PLoS ONE.

Larsen sees the potential for this sort of biological music to harness our natural pattern-recognition abilities. And the options for musical transformations extend well beyond algae. “The possible permutations of data transformed into music are nearly infinite,” he writes.

Listen to the compositions at

Larsen, P. and J. Gilbert. 2013. PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058119.

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