Another takeaway from the co-design session with teachers from the Perkins School for the Blind involved the use of earcons and auditory icons with devices they use in the classroom. The main tool that struck me was LabQuest, a thermometer that sonifies temperature in real-time, and that produces two beeps to signal the turning on and one distinct beep to signal the turning off of the device. These earcons help signify part of the process of using the tool, and like how Walker and Nees define earcons, “the sounds are employed to promote awareness of the processes rather than to solely trigger some required response” (2011: 20). Later on in the same session, I noticed how teachers’ descriptions around their experiences with sonifications involved confusion when sonifications begin and end. Without an earmark, there were descriptions of abrupt starts to sonifications and long listening pauses at the end of sonifications.
I introduced the concept of earmarking sonifications start/ends as part of my University of Oregon Data Sonification course, and students began trying out different combinations of beeps and tones. By the end of the term, even with the option to omit these earcons, many students included this type of earcons as part of their work. I also began employing earcons as bookends to sonifications. Listening to how many video racing games include a pitch increase with a starting countdown, I opted to design a sonification start earcon that has two tones going up in pitch (up a perfect fifth from C to G, listen to Example 1). My sonification ending earcon does the opposite, with two tones falling in pitch but keeps the same starting note and pitches (thus leaps down a perfect fourth from C to G, listen to Example 2).
It is still unknown if we will include these bookending earcons with our sonifications; however, I have found that they are a useful marker both for the synchronization of multiple recorded tracks in sonification mixing and for the listening of sonification as an audience member, especially when one isn’t in control of the play button nor can view the amount of elapsed time. Examples of the described bookending start and end earcons are below.
Update (July 27. 2023) -- After evaluative testing with user groups, both in informal and formal settings, we found wrapping sonification with earcons to indicate the start and end of the data sonification was really helpful! We published these data sonification wrapper earcons on Zenodo if you'd like to use and cite in your work. Please visit: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8176580 to access these earcons. And drop us a line if you use them!
Audio example 1. Earcon that signals the start of a sonification. The two beeps rise in pitch.
Audio example 2. Earcon that signals the end of a sonification. The two beeps fall in pitch.
Walker, B. N. and Nees, M. A. Theory of sonification. In Hermann, T., Hunt, A., Neuhoff, J. G., editors, The Sonification Handbook, chapter 2, pages 9–39. Logos Publishing House, Berlin, Germany. 2011
by Jon Bellona