Web Songs

The Sound of the Internet

If the internet makes a sound (and it does), are you listening? Our correspondent uses software to transform the digital ephemera of web browsing—from network traffic to JavaScript, browser histories to JPGs—into music.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Microphone, 2007. Courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery nyc.

Our real lives exist in an uninterrupted bubble of sound. The real world—meatspace—sounds like coughing and arguments and the slurp of liquids from cups. In the real world, the sounds we humans make (or cause our machines to make on our behalf) have merged into nature’s audio backdrop. We screen out the humming, roaring, beeping, clicking, and tapping in our environment, because we’re so accustomed to it being there. It’s the daily din of disinterest.

Our digital lives have sounds too, but you have to lean in a little closer to hear them. Some people will scoff if you claim that the internet produces any sounds at all, but they are the people who have never stopped to listen. Everything makes a sound. It might not be one your ears are adjusted to—evolution, after all, is something no species can afford to hurry—but it’s there for the hearing. In some cases (in many, when talking digital) you have to apply the same effort to listening as you do to the creative activity in the first place. Such as what you are doing right now:

Consider those hours spent updating social networks. All that furious clicking to check in at a location, and to do so before someone else can. Those minutes spent composing the shot, applying the most appropriate retro filter, and uploading it to this week’s most fashionable sharing platform. Now imagine spending the same amount of time listening to those activities, double-tracking your ears alongside your fingertips.

Stop for a moment: Have you ever heard the soft sigh your Facebook profile makes as you scroll through it? Have you never paused to wonder at the delicate hum that lurks behind the Google search box? When you type in your search query, it pays to listen more carefully: Behind the scenes, you can just about discern the soundtrack of the Googlebot, singing to itself in the darkness, a score written by robots and conducted by HAL.

Of course, separating out the sounds of individual websites is hard work. It’s like standing on a bridge over a busy road and trying to pinpoint the sound of a particular car. The roar of the traffic is everywhere, but the tone of that one vehicle is almost impossible to extract. Especially when it’s moving so fast.

There are ways of navigating the cacophony. No matter how close you sit to your ethernet port, the din of the traffic will overpower your delicate (some animals would say pathetic) human ears.

Let’s start with the network. The internet is, so the saying goes, a series of tubes. Tubes that echo with data, and the scurryings of the electronic vermin that inhabit the dead spaces between. Broken links, unviewed YouTube videos, trollish blog comments rendered invisible by snarling thread admins—all these are nest spaces for the tube-dwellers, the creatures of the net. You can hear them snuffling about, seeking patches of overgrown JavaScript they can feed on without being noticed. Their pleasure on discovering a new source of food is matched only by their song, which echoes down the tubes as pulses of noisy electrons. Other script-feeders hear it and come rushing to join the feast, clogging up the internet’s tube with their picometer-long whiskers. That’s when your browser grinds to a halt, and you’re forced to reboot. The sounds continue in your absence. The internet is never switched off and never goes silent.

You can ping the internet. Nerds will tell you that “ping” is software, a network admin tool. What they won’t tell you is that it’s called ping because of the sound your network makes as you tap it:

Overlay several ping commands, one on top of the other, and they become something simultaneously more orchestral, more ambient, more alien, and more networked:

You don’t need to ping the first-ever web page, just listen to its text, reformatted for hypersound:

Beyond the tubes lie the websites themselves, cosy in their server rooms. You already know what server rooms sound like. There is the hum of the hard disk, the rumble of RAM, the creak of connections (wireless or otherwise).

The hum is constant. Servers are hungry beasts, always feeding. They gulp electricity. The more HTML we ask them to excrete, the more they must feed. Sometimes, they excrete too much or feed too little, and become bloated with the electronic gas of overload. When that happens, we restart them and they respond with a grateful little surge, a tiny whoosh of gratitude for our easing of their discomfort. Snatch an earful of those whooshes when you can; they’re hard to track down.

Inside the servers, the websites live. Tiny nested marvels of files and folders and databases, each one uniquely feathered and singing its own song.

Twitter, as you’d expect, adopts an avian persona even when digitised. Fearful of predators, it flits up to the higher branches to chirp its music of tweets and retweets. My Twitter timeline, just a few hours of it, sounds like this:

Between each tweet there’s the tappity-tap of each username’s feet, stamping out their unique message IDs on the twigs of the framework.

Your browser performs similar percussion. Browsers don’t get a lot of sympathy, but perhaps they deserve some for the arduous work they have to do. Every tiny click, every new tab you open in the background, results in megabytes of data for your overworked browser to download, decode and display. It may be a simple retweet, or a click on a “Like” button to you, but to your browser it’s another few hundred kilobytes to wade through.

Small wonder that my browser history sounds like the late-night keyboard poundings of the talented half of an early ’80s synthpop duo, smashing his fists into a synth, back in the days when a synth was an expensive thing to break:

In percussive form, another stretch of browser history loses the anger but retains the sense of frantic abandon. You can hear the post-punk percussive multi-taps of every http request, every slash, every dot. URLs as Europop.

And now a third section of browser history, this time played on a virtual piano. It’s a bit like the Muppets playing the best of John Cage, as interpreted by Björk. Or at least, by her Muppet equivalent.

Of course, the song of a website is enhanced and altered by the subtler tones played by its contents. Text can sing, but so can pictures. I wrote a poem in a to-do app on a smartphone, posted it to a photo sharing site, copied that image and turned it into ASCII art, all to see what tune it might play. The result was more poetic than the original poem:

Another image. This time a photograph of shadows. Transformed into sound, its ASCII alter-ego trembles like those furry net creatures, holed up in their 404 errors. It bubbles like a datafall over a cliff’s edge. There’s no pool at the bottom to collect it; the data falls forever.

Millions of these web songs pass us by every day. We walk among them as we walk the streets of our cities, passing through a dozen new wi-fi connections at every corner. The network remains aloof. There is no distance on the internet, only nodes and connections. I am a node; you, the reader, are a node. The distance between us is the same as a traceroute command between my house and “themorningnews.org”. Reinterpreted by software, that connection becomes this data-symphony: a song of the circuit, the sound that links my node to your node. We reach out and touch, and the touch sounds like this:

My advice for anyone who wants to hear the sounds of the internet is to switch on every noise-making gadget in your home. Turn all the volume controls right up. Play music on every music player, a different station on every FM radio. Let the noises cascade down the stairs and out through the front door, let them rush out into the street. Let the street rush back in.

You, meanwhile, must sit close to your computer, hugging your browser, holding your router in your fist. Amid the chaos, bend your earlobes toward the net. From the center, you’ll hear faint tappings, tiny beeps. Follow those, go deeper. The smaller sounds will guide you to the larger ones. Fall in, fall through, and stay down.

Leave your headphones on the table behind you.


All the sounds files in this article are released under Creative Commons License.

The writer would like to thank the following, without whose help no sound recordings could have been made: