How We Made Antarctic Waves

Our central aim for Antarctic Waves was to offer a unique collection of creative tools for making music inspired by the important scientific work being explored in Antarctica.

The relationship between science and music was made by using as its unifying principle the concept of waves.
Waves represent :
* the methods used by scientists to both measure and understand Antarctica
* the ways in which we both make and hear (and sometimes see) music
* a series of metaphors connecting this scientific work with musical ideas

Antarctic Waves extends the notion of visualising data. Scientists who need to understand complex data sets are familiar with the idea of representing data graphically and sometimes dynamically. Recent developments in hardware and software have provided a new range of powerful software tools for visualising data. We wanted to take this idea one sense further and design software that enables the user to musicalise data – allowing us to hear data as well as see it.

Our starting point in each of the five areas was to talk to scientists at British Antarctic Survey who explained in detail both what they were researching and why. To illustrate this we were shown a variety of types of data - images, sounds,and mostly - numbers. After talking through the underlying story or issue that we wished to take on, we began to mock up the storyboard for each area, including the relationship between music and science, the fundamental musical device being explored and how to make the interfaces both interactive and fun.

Reflecting Scientific Methods
In some cases like the Ocean Life and Whistler section, we tried to replicate the research processes that the scientists undertake. So in the Whistler section, the act of listening to a length of audio recording and selecting areas of interesting musical activity is actually very close to the scientists listening to hours and hours of material, listening for interesting triggered emmissions. The Ocean Life section represents the real life method of collecting data on ocean life by including a boat. The data that the equipment on the boat generates in response to matter in the water, is used to paint a data picture of the range of life that exists in the water in the interface. The use of the vertical line underneath the boat to calculate the dominance of a particular colour/life form, works togethr with the movement of the boat in a straight nautical line to transform the changes of life over time and distance, into changes of volume. It was a perfect opportunity to use volume as a musical device (which is sometimes underated and underused). It enables to us to avoid the rigidity of a set rhythmical pattern and introduce changes in volume and therefore changes in the perceived and real active dynamic of the material.

Very early on in the production we discussed what the musical outcome of the data should sound like. After talking to a series of composers, we felt that we should move on from the MIDI sounds that we were using in order to test the musicalisation processes, and create new bespoke sounds. By using source sounds collected/recorded at the Antarctic and editing, combining and manipulating them into our own set of sounds, we felt that Antarctic Waves didn't create any obvious relationships with one type of music or culture. This was a very important issue for us as we wanted to people to use Antarctic Waves to create any kind of music in any kind of musical style and not feel that by using 'violins' that it was for creating classical music, or 'sitar' so that it was for creating Indian music. We were spoilt for choice with a wide range of extraordinary sounds recorded by the British Antarctic Survey and have used albatross croaks, seal barks, water, wind and so on - some sounds that have to be heard to be believed!

The Wandering Albatross
This area has been through 42 different versions and developmental stages, and is the area that we started first and finished last. Game -play, and sound manipulation were the main factors undergoing constant change. We also had extensive feedback from our Albatross scientist who guided us on what we could say in relation to the declining population of Albatrosses and what we couldn't - we had to ensure that we drew the right conclusions from eating patterns and the presence of longline fishing.

An early version of the Albatross area was created in order to sort out the mapping of satellite data from the Albatrosses flight trips onto a suitable map of the earth surface - there being a few different ways to do this and each with their own complications. This now unused version proved to be so much fun to play as an instrument in its own right, that we will soon be adding it onto this website for you to have a go - watch this space.

Listening to the Sky
This is one of the most-played areas of Antarctic Waves. The simple correlation equating dark colours with low pitches and light colours with high pitches has created an area with fairly immediate musical feedback. Each photograph shows roughly 500Km of sky above Antarctica, and includes a range of phenomena - wide patches of starry sky, denser patches of the Milky Way and very light coloured but dense patches of the aurora. This in itself is an enormous wealth of creative material, but adding fifty two other sky images to sequence and display changes in the sky over time, creates a fundamental parallel with how music changes over time. The four instruments that are available in this area are all options for each of the four earcons. This decision means that students can play with ideas of unison and polyphony, using the difference in instrumental timbre to help to differentiate between different lines of musical activity.

The Composing Guides were written by Duncan Chapman and Gabi Braun. The composing ideas that surround each of the five areas in the Making Music section, were written to embrace both structured and abstract ideas, a range of age ranges and abilities and a range of instrumental and digital resources. This complex intention was realised by talking through the specific composing possibilities that each of the five interfaces offer and by creating more ideas than were included in the final version. Comparing the range of ideas and how they were illustrated across each section allowed us to boost or limit the five until we felt a balance was achieved.

The introduction, which is aimed at students, and the Teachers' Notes were carefully written to set expectations appropriately about both the mechanics of the software and effective classroom use as well as approaches to composition. In association with our Education Advisor John Stephens, we included sections on organisation, development, assessment and achievement of work. These areas work in parallel with the concise Composing Guide Plan, the Glossary of terms, the Schemes of Work and Specifications for 14 - 19 year olds. In all of these areas, we have advised that using Antarctic Waves could really benefit from joint teaching or at least from input by a science or geography teacher. Whilst we feel that all of the information needed about the science that underpins the five main areas in the Making Music section is present in the respective introductions, we are confident that this resource is a good opportunity to foster and develop teacher relations across curricular subjects.

To order your copy of Antarctic Waves please go to the website of our publishers, MMT at

If you would like further information on Antarctic Waves please email us on