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Symphonique algorithmique

Speed read
  • Repetitive motifs are prevalent in classical music compositions
  • Reading sheet music can be difficult for beginners to understand
  • Vibrant data visualizations highlight musical patterns and invite new appreciation 

Repetition plays a powerful role in how people listen to music.

Psychological research shows that people prefer things and experiences they’ve either consciously or unconsciously encountered before — it’s known as the “mere exposure” effect.

Allegro con color. Artist Nicholas Rougeux's color-saturated visualizations of sheet music reveal the underlying patterns of classical music. Courtesy Nicholas Rougeux.

As a result, many pieces of music use repetition as a framework. The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, for example, begins with the simple yet menacing da-da-da-DUM that repeats throughout the piece.

When we listen to music, our ears easily spot these patterns. But what if we want to trace these arrangements on the page, without going to the pains of reading complicated sheet music?

That’s where Nicholas Rougeux’s data visualizations come into play. Rougeux is the creator of “Off the Staff,” a series of colorful posters that display musical notes, pitch, and other melodic elements in famous pieces of classical music.

<strong>Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.</strong> Scores for multiple instruments use color as an added dimension to differentiate instruments. Courtesy Nicholas Rougeux.

“I find repetition satisfying,” Rougeux says, “and have found over the years that I tend to work best with existing material. Working with data aligns with both of those very nicely.”

Rougeux utilized MuseScore, an open-source music notation program, to create his vibrant posters. He began by exporting MIDI files of classical sheet music from MuseScore, then generated a CSV file to parse through the data before designing the poster in NodeBox.

He also produced animated videos with the images using Adobe Premiere.

“This process involved a tremendous amount of trial and error and patience but watching that first video play perfectly that first time was worth it,” Rougeux says.

<strong>Everything old is new again.</strong> Says Rougeux, 'When I discovered this new way of looking at something that's been around for centuries, that was exciting and I wanted to share it with others.' (Hallelujah, Messiah, by George Frideric Handel) Courtesy Nicholas Rougeux.

Despite growing up in a musical family, Rougeux cannot read sheet music. So, he began this project as a simple way for people to understand patterns in classical music.

Every dot in each image is a note in the score. Pitch is marked by distance from the center of the poster. Dot size represents duration of the note, and dot color differs for each instrument.

Rougeux created several posters featuring different pieces from a wide range of classical artists, including Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart. Even though the process was time-consuming, he says the project was a worthwhile endeavor.

“Off the Staff was one of the hardest projects I've worked on to date,” Rougeux says. “But the result was totally worth all the headaches. Plus, the beautiful music helps add a flare to the good feelings!”

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