BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — On a Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, in a modest funeral home on First Avenue North, the sound was unmistakable: relentless grief.
As the minister read from Scripture that afternoon, the pain came out one agonizing scream at a time. Erica Tenice Connell, surrounded by family and friends, had made it to her son’s casket. Keleen RaShad Connell, 27, had been shot and killed by Birmingham police on Feb. 23. Just ten days later, in a funeral home less than a mile from where Keleen took his final breath, Erica Connell had come to give her son a homegoing.
Soon, Doris A. Jelks, longtime funeral attendant, walked slowly into the room from the back, singing as she came.
“Oh Lord, we’ll know all about it,” she sang. “Farther along, we’ll understand why.”
Doris Jelks’ song for Birmingham’s dead. Erica Connell’s screams at her son’s graveside. These are some of the sounds of Birmingham’s gun violence crisis.
But the data itself speaks, too. It may even sing.
Using a process called “sonification,” CBS 42 produced a song of Birmingham’s gun violence crisis — an audio track created solely from data about 2022 shooting deaths in the Magic City.
Below is the result.
The late Mark Ballora, a professor of music technology at Penn State University, was an early proponent of sonification — creating music from data. He said that allowing people to hear information can be helpful for understanding and processing the data in a tangible way.
“It’s like when you add a soundtrack to a movie,” he said in an interview. “It takes you into that world and it makes it a much more visceral phenomenon. It shouldn’t be an unusual thing for us to listen to data.”
Ballora created sonifications of everything from heartbeats to the rotations of a neutron star. Transforming what can be seemingly “flat” data into music can be both engaging and informative, he said.
“As humans, we all respond to music,” he said. Hearing data can help give listeners a new perspective on information. That can offer listeners “a more intuitive understanding of the material than they would get from a visual presentation alone,” Ballora argued.
For the song of Birmingham’s gun violence crisis, CBS 42 used data on the ages of each person who died from a shooting in 2022, arranged by the order in which they lost their lives. Each man, woman, and child who died from gun violence in 2022 in the Magic City is represented in the data.
The song was created using Two Tone, an open-source program that allows users to create basic sonification from data compiled in a program like Excel or Google Sheets.
Each individual who died from gun violence was assigned a note on a musical scale (A minor in this case) based on their age. Those notes were then placed sequentially, in the order the people they represent died in the city.
The first notes, for example, represent Fernando Jose Cruz-Soto, 20, the first recorded gun death in Birmingham in 2022. The final notes represent Kamarian Morris, 18, the last recorded victim of gun violence in the city last year.
In total, at least 135 men, women, and children died as a result of gun violence in Birmingham in 2022.