Traffic in Birmingham city centre

Researchers compiled air quality data from urban and rural locations at different times of the day. These were then used to produce sound works using a variety of different instruments and styles, inviting listeners to ‘hear’ differences in air pollution.

Entitled 'Sounding Out Pollution', the project consists of three distinct pieces. The first is based on pollution data comparing countryside and cities across the UK. The second charts how air pollution changes on an hourly basis across the West Midlands. The third illustrates how the air we breathe drastically changes as we are taken on a journey from Birmingham's rural outskirts and into the city centre.

image of Edinburgh city centre, with pollution information
Music and pictures capture the sound of pollution from countryside to city

The pieces can be heard as part of 'The Air We Breathe' exhibition currently on display at The Exchange, the University’s new building in Centenary Square, Birmingham, or online. An accompanying visual element also helps the listener to interpret the sounds.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the exploratory project was developed in collaboration with WM-Air, a University of Birmingham research project to improve air quality and health across the West Midlands.

We’re all aware that air pollution is harmful and that it affects all of us – but because it’s invisible it’s hard to maintain that awareness. Sounding Out Pollution offers people a fresh perspective on pollution – and maybe an incentive to occasionally walk or choose public transport rather than get into a car.

Dr Catherine Muller, Project Manager for WM-Air

Sound artist Robert Jarvis said: “Sound is often a striking way to express data that is normally presented through one of the other senses. Perhaps from years of listening to music, people are pretty proficient at deciphering sonic information. As a result, by using audio in this way we can quickly form new understandings. My hope is that Sounding Out Pollution offers a useful way in learning about how our immediate environment is changed by the choices we make.”

Prof William Bloss said “Hearing how air pollution levels vary can help us to understand how the air we breathe changes with location and with time of day. For example, some air pollutants are closely linked to road traffic – others less so. Sounding Out pollution helps people understand these differences, and so make decisions that may affect their air pollution exposure.”

The Air We Breathe exhibition is open at The Exchange from Monday to Saturday 10:00 – 16:00, with a late opening on Wednesdays to 20:00. Admission is free.