Green Light SONATA: Improvisation at the Intersection of Art and Science

Montasir Abbas, Charles Nichols, Anne Elise Thomas, and Qichao Wang


The Green Light SONATA project originated with a hunch in the engineering domain, but could only materialize through true collaboration of researchers working across disciplines. The project tested the hypothesis that translating simulated traffic information into music could lead to musical resolution of persistent traffic congestion. Our team—consisting of civil engineers, a composer/performer/computer music researcher, and an ethnomusicologist—proceeded to construct a model of an intersection in which each direction of traffic flow was assigned a musical pitch. Hearing these pitches as cues, musicians could interact with the sonified traffic to allow vehicles to proceed through the intersection. The result was a musical “gamification” of traffic flow in which the goal was to minimize the vehicles’ idle time. The next stage of this project will include public demonstration and testing sessions, involving students and additional musicians, to assess the concept’s viability, refine our methods, and gather further data. The team’s multidisciplinary dialogue takes us on productive tangents translating between different domains of musical and technical expertise. Moving forward, we plan to test additional methods of data sonification, manipulating additional musical variables (including pulse and rhythm, sequence, scales, ornaments, and other musical elements) and scaling up to model multiple consecutive intersections.

Green Light SONATA: Improvisation at the Intersection of Art and Science


October 27, 2020 (673 views *)

Problem SPACE

Optimizing traffic signal control is a problem that lies at the heart of the field of transportation systems engineering. Analyzing data from 494 urban areas in the U.S., the Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI) newly-released 2019 Urban Mobility Report puts the nationwide cost of traffic congestion at $166 billion of time and fuel wasted per year. Each individual commuter, on average, loses 54 hours per year and spends over $1000 on wasted fuel due to traffic delays. Amidst urgent calls for action to avert the worst impacts of climate change, there is clearly a need for innovative approaches to developing more efficient traffic control systems.

The Green Light SONATA (Signal Operation with Neuro-fuzzy Acoustic Tuning Application) seeks to harness the practical decision-making skills exercised by musicians in the act of improvisation and apply this expertise to traffic congestion, sonically represented. Understanding musical improvisation as a social behavior, we begin with a hypothesis that the musical intuition exhibited by performers during collective improvisational performance could be usefully applied to a sonic representation of traffic congestion at an intersection (which can itself be considered, in some ways, a collective improvisational performance). This hypothesis spurs inquiry back into music as we explore which specific elements of music-making contribute to a successful musical experience, and how these elements might inform traffic control systems. By sonifying data from traffic simulation software, having musicians respond musically to the sonified traffic data, and collecting and comparing the musically-informed control data with that from traffic controlled by traditional methods, we explore the feasibility of utilizing musical behavioral data to improve traffic efficiency through arts-integrated operation.

Most drivers have experienced waiting long minutes for a traffic light to turn green, even with no traffic from competing directions. Avoiding these unnecessary delays could save each of us time, money, and in some cases, our pleasant disposition in our next human encounter. However, the problem of minimizing delay through optimizing signal control presents several unique challenges. Real-life traffic flow is subject to high complexity of variables, both predictable and unpredictable. In heavily congested areas, small problems can quickly grow to impact traffic at multiple intersections. 

Green Light SONATA Experimental set-up. Musicians are interacting with different sets of sonified data (as well as visuals) from VISSIM simulation software for a single intersection. The image projected on the screen behind the musicians represents the sonified data to which one musician is responding.
The three musicians are (L-R) Montasir Abbas, Charles Nichols, and Anne Elise Thomas. Video credit Qichao Wang. (2018)


The idea of translating the traffic control problem into the musical domain and bringing solutions found there back to the transportation domain is novel, and required a variety of disciplinary exchanges. While trying to answer the question of whether musical intuitions can help synchronizing signal control variables with intersection traffic to improve traffic flow, our team applied concepts from music theory to the problem at hand. In sonifying traffic, we mapped compatible traffic movements to consonant pitch intervals. To facilitate the call and response between traffic and control, we assigned compatible green lights to the musical range that is easily accessible for each musical instrument.

Our project aims to provide an arts-integrated approach to traffic control, first at a single intersection, and eventually at the network level. Working with one of the industry-standard traffic simulation software packages (VISSIM), we translate the incoming traffic at one intersection into musical sound (see accompanying media). Each of the eight incoming traffic streams is assigned a unique musical pitch, which sounds as a plucked tone as a vehicle approaches an intersection, and a sustained tone, increasing in volume, as cars wait at the intersection.

Sonifying data from traffic simulation software allows the human ear to discern patterns that may not be salient in visual and/or numerical data. We ask trained musicians to listen and respond musically to this sonified data—to control the traffic by playing the pitch assigned to a given traffic direction, giving those vehicles the “green light.” Over the course of repeated interaction with the system, musicians become faster and more strategic in minimizing traffic delays. Through this process, the strategies that musicians demonstrate while improvising in response to auditory cues offer alternative solutions to what has become the standard approach to traffic systems control. The musical strategies are translated back into traffic control in the simulation and benchmarked against standard isolated signal control.

To date, we have developed a software interface between commercial traffic simulation software and musical input devices, designed and conducted an experiment to test musicians’ response to sonified traffic data, and conducted statistical data analyses comparing performance data of the signal when operated by musical versus traditional control.

Results from our initial experiment are promising, with the musical control of two of the three musicians’ responses resulting in less total traffic delay than standard isolated intersection control methods. Additionally, we found that all musicians performed better when responding to auditory cues only, as compared to responding to both auditory and visual information from the traffic simulation software. This suggests that indeed, a musical approach could offer an innovative and potentially advantageous disruption to conventional methods of traffic systems control.

An extended demonstration of the Traffic SONATA concept. Approaching traffic is sonified by assigning pitch values to incoming traffic to a 4-way intersection. Eight unique pitches are chosen, based on the direction each vehicle intends to proceed (continuing straight or turning left). Each vehicle crossing the sensors (indicated by small blue rectangles) is sonified by a plucked version of the assigned pitch; vehicles waiting at the intersection produce a sustained version of the same pitch, increasing in volume as wait time increases. This video includes qanun, violin, and `ud (in this order) interacting with the data from VISSIM simulation software.
Charles Nichols, Montasir Abbas, Anne Elise Thomas and Qichao Wang (2018) -


The Traffic Sonata team brings together specialists from distinct disciplines, initiating conversations that necessitate deep reflection on the foundations of each discipline and how one might inform the other. Data sonification has gained significant traction across scientific disciplines as a way to enhance human understanding of complex information; however we are aware of no other instances in the literature of human interaction with data through artistic (musical) realization to inform the decision process towards global synchronization. As such, our work represents an innovative process that could be quite generative of ideas for researchers across disparate fields and disciplines.

Our initial project activities leave plenty of room to deepen multidisciplinary integration. While we have succeeded in “gamifying” traffic control in a musical way for a single traffic intersection, we have yet to develop and run an experiment applying this approach at a network level. When we initially conceived this project, we imagined that musical sound and traffic systems would converge in such a way that the most optimal traffic solution would also sound deeply satisfying in some way to the musicians involved. While there is beauty in the music resulting from our initial excursions, we feel compelled to interrogate further the types of sound that can be produced by data sonification and by human musical interactions within this framework.

In the future, we plan to modify the sounds of different variables within the traffic sonification, and to sonify data from multiple intersections simultaneously, to add levels of complexity to the musical action and ultimately gather more robust data to inform a more efficient learning approach to traffic control. Forthcoming experiments with traffic data sonification will take advantage of the human ability to simultaneously perceive multiple auditory streams, including changes in pitch, rhythm, and timbre, and to exercise complex judgment in responding to these auditory streams in real time.

Larger questions raised by this project extend beyond the fields of musical performance and civil engineering, reaching into philosophical inquiry into aesthetics and utility, and how each aspect influences our perceptions of musical worth and beauty.


Over the course of this project, we as researchers have found ourselves translating concepts from one field to another, and mining the depth of our team’s experience as researchers and performing musicians. With a team that includes civil engineers, a composer/performer, and an ethnomusicologist, ideas from historical rules of Western music theory are entertained alongside multicultural musical practices, and industry-standard traffic control. In the absence of a clear map forward, our team has followed intuition into productive discussion through which we collectively determine which ideas are immediately worth pursuing and which are tabled for possible future consideration. We hope this project will inspire others to undertake further work exploring transportation, sound, and society. Passion was the key component to achieve the goal in this transdisciplinary project.


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The project was partially supported by a Virginia Tech Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology SEAD (Science, Engineering, Art, and Design) Major Initiative Program grant, and the Virginia Tech Data and Decisions Destination Area Concept seed grant.


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