The music of geography: Ohio is a piano

Ohio is a piano

Last month, as I was driving through Ohio to collect my final three counties in the state, it dawned on me: There are 88 counties in this state. There are 88 keys on a piano. I don’t know anything about music, but holy crap, I have to make a map based on this coincidence.

And so I did, bit by bit, gradually descending into madness in the process. It has no purpose, really, apart from being an experiment in some sort of weird artistic musical cartography. Ohio is a piano. Check it out. (It’s in Flash.)

Ohio piano map

The premise is simply that each of the 88 piano keys is assigned to a single Ohio county. How the keys are mapped to the counties depends on a specified data attribute: the notes and counties are ordered by that attribute and then linked to one another. For example, if the chosen attribute is population, the county with the lowest population is assigned the lowest-frequency piano key, the county with the highest population is assigned the highest-frequency piano key, and so on. The data I have here are a little out of date, but that doesn’t matter for demonstrating the idea.

There are many directions one could go from here. I have chosen a few ways to see the geography of music (songs) and hear the music of geography (data, metro areas, or sequences based on Google Maps routing).

In my experience, most of it sounds like crap, apart from the provided simplified bits of actual songs of course, although even those might sound wrong (but hey, blame the sheet music I found). (Update: Screw it, the Beethoven piece was too horribly out of key, so it’s gone.) But I would be very interested to hear if anyone discovers any patterns that sound decent.

What’s missing, of course, is the ability to compose your own geographic music, that is, bringing in your own songs, sequencing counties into songs, seeing the data and grouping it in different ways, making your own chords and routes, and so on. That and controlling the music from the piano as well as the map. Compositionally, for now you’re stuck with just moving the mouse over the map, but perhaps you can imagine how this concept could be turned into a full-fledged crazy musical cartography application.

A couple final caveats: 1) the piano sounds are exported from GarageBand and on the high end don’t seem to sound great, and 2) this little application is not at all idiot-proofed, so my apologies if you are an idiot. This is just a demonstration of a ridiculous concept; it’s hardly worth the effort to make it a well-designed, smoothly functioning application. For now, no stop buttons, nothing to keep you from playing a cacophony of all the options at once… go nuts, it’s kind of more fun anyway.

Cartographically speaking…

Sonification of data is reasonably commonplace: think metal detectors and Geiger counters. Representing spatial data using sound is a subject about which I know little, but it is an active research topic in cartography. Obviously what I have made here is necessarily an example of mapping with sound, although I don’t believe it to be especially useful for understanding data. It is, rather, artistic in intent, allowing one to hear the “music” of the data and geography (whatever that means) rather than actually explore the data values.

Many, if not most, endeavors in using sound for thematic maps will refer back to a 1994 article by John Krygier (my future undergraduate advisor at Ohio Wesleyan University) called Sound and Geographic Visualization. He has reprinted the article on his Making Maps site.

Krygier's sound variables

Krygier proposed explaining audio maps through a set of abstract sound variables (above, as reprinted in Alan MacEachren’s How Maps Work), analogous to Jacques Bertin’s graphic variables that are a basis for ordinary thematic mapping. Relative differences in these variables can be used to make data comparisons. Following the path from Krygier’s article will take you to a number of examples of further research or attempts to use sound to enhance or independently convey map data.

Using sound for thematic mapping has also been of interest to those seeking to assist blind or otherwise visually-impaired map users. The HCI folks at the University of Maryland, for example, have worked on software for that purpose. (And I believe I’ve seen Maryland names, such as the famous Ben Shneiderman, on more general articles about using sound to represent map data.)

Anyway, like I said, it’s not an area of my expertise. I’ll just stick to the impractical, wannabe artsy stuff.

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  1. This is really great! I love the metro chords and route melodies especially.

    And I wouldn’t be too judgmental about its musical qualities; you’re in a long history of making music from arbitrary association. (see: )

    1 August 2009 @ 11:48am

  2. This is amazing, but I would argue that you can use it for data analysis. For example, if you assign notes with one dataset and then play the data with different criteria, you can hear correlation or lack thereof between the two variables.

    1 August 2009 @ 1:54pm

  3. I’ve never quite looked at music in this way. Interesting and entertaining fun.

    Dan the Music Master
    2 August 2009 @ 3:56am

  4. in case anyone is interested in such things, several years ago I wrote a long acrostic poem based on the ratio of black keys to white keys (36:52 = 9:13) of a standard 88 key piano. this has nothing to do with Ohio but some may it a bit interesting

    John Devlin
    2 August 2009 @ 4:30pm

  5. With the economy the way it is most of the music coming out of Ohio is the blues!

    4 August 2009 @ 8:51am

  6. You are a genius! Great.

    Any reason why Canton is omitted from the Metro list?

    Ric Vrana
    10 August 2009 @ 6:34pm

  7. Well, no good reason why Canton is omitted. But I’ve just added it now. I either forgot or didn’t realize that it had a metro area of more than one county. Forgive me; I come from the other side of the state.

    Thanks everyone for the compliments, the links to this, and the additional insights posted in comments!

    Andy Woodruff
    10 August 2009 @ 8:32pm

  8. Thanks Andy – as a musician and map-nut, this one fit the bill. I love projects like this. One of my favorites over the years was to have the buzz-bumps on the side of the road play a tune or recite a message when your tires “played” them. Then Honda went and did it! But their effort was dismal at best, since they played the right rhythm, but the wrong pitches for Wm Tell Overture….

    Keep up the good work!

    David Haldeman
    11 August 2009 @ 7:00am

  9. And New Jersey is a Guzheng or a Kora.

    20 August 2009 @ 11:49am

  10. This makes me really really happy. 😀 😀 😀

    Yode Pantse
    20 August 2009 @ 4:08pm

  11. I will now have a song in my heart as I travel to Cleveland. Thanks for your whimsical map! Made my day and shared it with lots of friends.

    5 September 2009 @ 12:37pm

  12. And the map of Ohio even looks like the top of a grand piano! Sort of. In a way. Kinda.

    Anne (formerly of Urbana, Ohio)
    11 September 2009 @ 6:18pm

  13. Odd is the fact that when you look at Ohio, it’s pretty much in the shape of a piano as well.

    29 September 2009 @ 4:33pm

  14. Sort: Pop2000
    Pickaway, Knox, Shelby, Clinton, Brown
    Highland, Mercer, Clinton, Gallia, Champaign
    Enjoy! 😀

    Kevin P. Miller
    30 September 2009 @ 9:49pm

  15. As an Ohio native I love this website. Why didn’t you have Athens as city. I know it is not big but it is home to Ohio University. I wanted to play the driving route to it. Any reason for leaving Athens out?

    2 October 2009 @ 11:52am

  16. Damn good question, Meredith. I don’t know how I managed to leave Athens off the list. (The list is of county seats, of which Athens is one.) I’ll add it today.

    Andy Woodruff
    2 October 2009 @ 11:57am

  17. Am I doing something wrong, or is your rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth really that bad and out of key?

    2 October 2009 @ 6:19pm

  18. It’s bad. I triple-checked the music I used for that (I don’t remember where it came from anymore), and I’m pretty certain I programmed in the right notes, but I guess it’s just an odd version of the tune. I ought to swap it for something else.

    Andy Woodruff
    2 October 2009 @ 7:00pm

  19. This is so creative :) Kudos!

    3 October 2009 @ 7:24am

  20. This is amazingly creative! I especially liked playing data for NoFarms97 – it has potential!

    How about adding Oberlin to the map? It’s a small community, I know, but is home to one of the best music conservatories in the country!

    3 October 2009 @ 10:18am

  21. You should add the song Beautiful Ohio.

    3 October 2009 @ 4:32pm

  22. I enjoy hearing paul M. piano

    larry Stewart
    3 October 2009 @ 6:40pm

  23. My wife who has very good pitch and is totally blind was delighted with this told me of a talk she heard from a blind doctor who used software to tone code the chemical elements for defining compounds as chords, etc.
    I wish there were a little window showing the actual data – for example, the name of that high pitched county in the NW corner or the actual percentage of Hispanics.
    Fun. Sent link to local physics teacher friend.

    Mike Firth
    4 October 2009 @ 12:23am

  24. I find your idea fascinating, but as an Ohio resident, may I ask that you please include any and all roadside rest areas on your map, just in case anyone feels the urge to tinkle on the keys?

    Stacey Woolley
    4 October 2009 @ 10:43pm

  25. I have not checked an actual piano, but I believe that your 88 notes go too high and not low enough. The really high ones kind of hurt my ears!
    Still, this is one of the most amusing and educational things I’ve ever seen on the internet.

    ears is ringing
    6 October 2009 @ 12:19am

  26. Carrie: Oberlin? Dirty hippies!! I think I’ll keep it simple and leave Oberlin to be represented by Elyria, the county seat.

    Mike: Interesting to hear a blind anecdote. As for showing the actual data, I’d certainly do that as a next step if there is to be a next step.

    Stacey: I spent an entire day trying to think of a counter-pun, to no avail. I have no choice but to comply with your request. But instead of adding rest areas to the map, would it be okay to add the map to rest areas? Does ODOT have money for that? I expect to be in Ohio next month and will do my best.

    ears is ringing: Yes, those notes do seem awfully high. I exported mp3 files from GarageBand, and supposedly they are the correct notes for a piano, so my inclination is to blame to GarageBand, and by extension Apple and Steve Jobs.

    Andy Woodruff
    6 October 2009 @ 1:22am

  27. This can actually prove to be very helpful for visually impaired.

    8 October 2009 @ 3:16am

  28. Please add a function to stop playback also.

    8 October 2009 @ 1:43pm

  29. Assigning Notes to Owner Occupier and playing the route from Batavia to Gallipolis is surprisingly tuneful. A bit Hitchcockian or possibly Ennio Morricone.

    I wonder if theres an instrument with 193 keys or notes to play the nations of the world?

    26 October 2009 @ 6:35pm

  30. .., wiihh.. awesome… present chords for simple song the nxt tym around… :) So creative..

    best piano course
    2 November 2009 @ 8:28pm

  31. This is great. I had to pass this around.

    23 January 2010 @ 11:56am

  32. Check this great source of piano lessons 😉

    Cheers !!

    14 May 2010 @ 8:17am

  33. I have a BS in Geography and a BA in Music. I have to say that the possibilities of cartography and sound never truly occurred to me until this mind blow came around.


    – Unison (identical attributes create the same tone)
    – Harmony (Complementary attributes create pleasing harmonies)

    – Sound varies depending on WHERE you are in relation to moving sound(s)

    Atonality and 12 tone systems
    – 12 tone systems are essentially mathematical matrices that can be inverted and retrograded into different forms, but they are not pleasing to the ear! You could sort of “translate” data into 12 tone or atonal music, but the real challenge would be for it to be pleasing to the ear – pretty subjective!

    Anyway, cool project. I’m going to check out Krygier’s work!

    Jacob Barnes
    20 September 2010 @ 10:46pm

  34. I am both a professional geographer and anamateur composer/pianist. I just discovered this site (for other reasons) and I am delighted. Perhaps I should try it for California and find a way so one could add their own tunes. IS 19 Nov. 2010. 10:58 PST

    Imre Sutton
    12 November 2010 @ 1:54pm

  35. That’s a seriously interesting thing. I’m gonna show my wife soon as she gets me a beer.

    Lamb Peaches
    6 May 2011 @ 6:27am