How does it work?

At the core of The Listening Machine is a piece of software which continuously observes the social network activity of its sample group, a strategically selected cluster of 500 users from around the UK. As these users interact, converse and go about their online lives, their messages and emotions are translated into music by a series of automated processes, or algorithms.

Collectively, these algorithms reflect the group's sentiments (positive or negative), topics of conversation (from sports and culture to technology and education), rate of activity, and the rhythms and tone of their speech itself.


What exactly is being translated into sound?

Music and human language have very different properties, so it's impossible to directly translate one into the other. Instead, The Listening Machine extract various pieces of information and uses them to control different parameters of the piece.

  • The overall rate of tweeting is linked to the rate and speed of music triggered
  • Emotional trends govern the piece's musical mode: positive, negative or neutral
  • Phrases and sentences that make up tweets are used to generate sequences of musical notes
  • Other keywords and topics are used to trigger larger movements within the piece

For more information on these process, see How The Listening Machine works.


Who are the people being observed?

We have used techniques from sociology to proportionally select people from different areas of life: sports, arts, technology, education, politics, business, health and science. Some of the subjects are well-known people or organisations; others are typical members of the public.

We have intentionally not revealed the set of people whose Twitter profiles are followed by The Listening Machine, so that the musical outcome is not affected by people becoming aware that they are a part of it.


What makes up the music?

There are several different kinds of musical element that go to make up the piece. Thousands of short instrumental fragments, representing different sentences and phrases, have been recorded with Britten Sinfonia, and are played based on people's speech patterns. Recorded samples of individual notes are used to generate more complex patterns, with their exact properties (speed, density, etc) controlled by broader trends in social behaviour: if people are tweeting more rapidly, the tempo of the piece will increase and orchestration "fatten".

When certain more specific events are mentioned, a longer non-musical recording may be played that represents that event; if somebody posts a tweet referring to the airport, for instance, the piece may play a recording of a plane taking off.


Is this recorded, or happening live?

All of the music that you can hear is generated live, based on status updates posted by people in real-time. The individual musical fragments and samples that make up the piece, however, were recorded beforehand by members of Britten Sinfonia.


What happens if nobody is tweeting?

Late at night, the general level of UK Twitter activity dies down considerably. To reflect this, the system automatically slows down the rate of the music, so that the sonified version of each tweet might be stretched out for several minutes. The overall density of the music as a whole will, of course, be much lower.


What is the motivation behind doing this?

Countless interesting patterns arise within social interactions: dialogues, arguments, plays on language, and recurring themes. The intention behind The Listening Machine was to translate those same structures into music, effectively creating a soundtrack to our everyday social lives.

It is also inspired by the Mass Observation Movement (1937), an early British experiment in social research in which 500 volunteers were asked to keep diaries of their everyday lives.


When is it running?

The piece ran for 24 hours a day, from May 2012 to January 2013.


Where can I hear it?

The Listening Machine is only available to hear online, via the The Space, a new on-demand digital arts channel, or directly on The Space is a joint initiative by the BBC and the Arts Council.


Who is behind the piece?

To find out more about the team behind The Listening Machine, please see the People page.


I'm having problems playing the stream. What's wrong?

The Listening Machine has now ceased broadcasting, so the stream is sadly no longer live.