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martes, 21 de mayo 2024
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Melodies of the rainforest floor

By Natalia Piedrahita Tamayo, Journalist

We obtain basic data from tea bags buried in the tropical forest of the Agro-ecological and Environmental Studies Center -Tulenapa- at the Urabá Branch of the Universidad de Antioquia. This information creates sonification and songs, which not only facilitate scientific analysis but also serve as strategies for enhancing social knowledge appropriation for non-scientific communities and people with visual disabilities.

A green plant in a forest

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Tea bags to collect data on soil decomposition in Tulenapa, Urabá, and Antioquia. Photo: Juan Felipe Blanco Libreros

The data collection occurred within a one-square-meter area of a rubber tree plantation (genus Castilla) established behind the administrative block of the Agro-ecological and Environmental Studies Center -Tulenapa- at the Urabá Branch of the Universidad de Antioquia. We deposited fifteen green tea bags there, which were replaced approximately every 30 days. These bags were the foundation for a project bridging science and art: the sonification and musicalization of soil decomposition data.

The sonicated data corresponds to the residual weight of plant organic matter after a month of decomposition facilitated by the soil activity where we buried the tea bags, setting a new standard for such studies. According to Juan Felipe Blanco Libreros, research coordinator and professor at the Institute of Biology, attached to the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, this experiment is new in Colombia and relatively recent worldwide, with antecedents dating back only 10 years. -see box-

In addition, it is innovative because the gathered information was turned into a sound piece called Tulenapa Smooth Jazz, based on data collected between September 2021 and May 2023.

Blanco Libreros describes the process as simple and intricate: “We start with the initial weight of green tea bags from a specific brand. Then we bury them five centimeters below the surface. After a month, we remove each bag from the environment—in this case, the Tulenapa forest. Part of the plant material they contained is “consumed,” as it becomes part of the digestive system of invertebrates and the broader food web involving fungi and bacteria. This metabolism process results in two outcomes: biomass within living organisms or CO2 released into the atmosphere. What remains in the bags is what these microorganisms did not consume due to a lack of time or the complexity of their digestion. This residue, a testament to carbon sequestration in the soil, provides the data that is sonified.” This exploration began and will persist with the Urabá Biodiversa project, financed with resources from the General System of Royalties for Science and Technology.


The sonification process established a correlation between data and music by assigning values to each data point within a hierarchy ranging from one to seven. These values can be converted into musical notes and represented in a specified timeframe to create the structure of a composition. These data reflect measurements of different factors in organic matter decomposition as well as the behaviors of the microorganisms involved in these processes.

“The weight of each sachet after the process serves as a data point, along with the variation in these weights within the same month and study area. With 15 bags occupying a square meter and being replaced monthly, we can consider each bag as a “beat” in terms of musical structure, with each month similar to a repetition of that beat. This accumulation results in 90 bags over the course of six months. If we assign each bag a one-second “beat,” we can build a one-and-a-half-minute composition,” explained Blanco Libreros.

Different variables with distinct sound patterns determine factors such as harmony, synchrony, and rhythm, which form the basis of the composed music. For instance, weather data exhibit rhythm within a single day, and this pattern enables the connection between melodies. By comprehending musical bases, biologists, or scientists in general, can transmit emotions through data, paving the way for the derivation of new knowledge and methodologies from this dialogue.

“Each experiment possesses its own melodic patterns, similar to assembling a small orchestra. Each instrument has its spirit and color, offering different creative possibilities. The data structure allows us to create tracks with various rhythms, such as jazz and blues,” said Blanco Libreros.

Other ways of doing science

The objective of sonification is to transform data into audible signals of scientific interest. Over the last two decades, a convergence of science and the arts has emerged with the notion of seeking inspiration from the same data patterns to create music, thereby conveying visually oriented information through sound.

You may be interested in reading: Music for swine welfare

The data musicalization serves as a platform for discussing science, offering an intriguing avenue for scientists to transcend conventional approaches. However, it presents an opportunity to initiate new dialogue with traditional scientists across other disciplines.

“This opens doors for communication with diverse stakeholders, igniting curiosity about nature conservation. It is an opportunity to overcome communication barriers and connect with people who have been marginalized in the scientific community. If communication in the natural sciences traditionally relies on graphics and text, why not explore sound compositions, too?” concluded Blanco Libreros.

First references of sonification

Astronomy and particle physics studies have paved the way for converting data coming from different universe regions into sounds and music, even with the substantial volume of data involved. This has led to the development of a method for storing and analyzing sound or audible data. In the health sciences, electrocardiograms and sound recordings from different vital organs have been utilized for over fifty years. Earth sciences and oceanography have gradually adopted this practice.

Today, many researchers are interested in converting data into sound due to the difficulties of representing it visually, known as big data. Working with sounds can sometimes simplify these processes.  

A surprising microworld

The Agro-ecological and Environmental Studies Headquarters -Tulenapa-, located in Carepa, is an ideal tropical rainforest for research. It contains an extensive natural area and plays a key role in understanding the rural environment of Urabá. Within its forests lie essential components for investigating factors associated with soil ecology.

“We have several research precedents from different disciplines and universities in this area, facilitating inventories of fauna, flora, and fungus. As ecologists, with funding from Codi, we conducted studies that contributed to declaring these properties as conservation areas for biodiversity. They serve as vital carbon reservoirs in the soil and regulate microclimates, offering countless ecosystem services while providing habitats for many species of fauna and flora,” concluded the expert Blanco Libreros. 

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