The Siren Project: A Daily Account of Pandemic Sounds

Over the course of the first pandemic year, graphic designer Heather Jones documented the sounds she heard from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., creating a personal database of her auditory experience. She then plotted the data as a visualization that reads like a musical score, with refrains, bridges, and interludes. Collectively, the “notes” tell a pandemic story in distinct movements—a symphony that she named “The Siren Project.” Read on to hear Heather’s own take on it, followed by a short Q&A with Nightingale about the process.

For the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, I wrote down every siren, helicopter, and construction noise I heard. I charted those noises, and included other sounds and events within earshot from my home. Each line in the project represents a day in my personal soundscape from March 29, 2020 to March 29, 2021.

An example of a day, showing the different sounds represented as symbols on a line. The full line is a complete day.
Courtesy Heather Jones

To me, the ambulance siren symbolized the aural manifestation of the invisible disease infecting the city, and an outward, palpable symbol of the fear many were experiencing at home. I live in New York City, by many standards the U.S.’s ground zero of the pandemic. The density of the city, with its hospitals, helipads, and construction sites, obviously comes with noise, but the new uproar made me ask, “What is the shape of racket, or the color of intrusion? What would a composition of sonic disturbance look like?”

My observations tracked with what was happening locally (such as protests) or personally (binge watching to pass time, or meditation to help process it). Weather is noted as well, as it correlates to what acoustic activities could happen during say, a hurricane. During lockdown I also heard some of these sounds in a virtually or in a “meta” way: on podcasts, video and phone calls, and on TV.

They symbol key for the project, showing gray circles as sirens, x's as helicopters, yellow arrows as construction noises, green chevrons as birds and so on.
Courtesy Heather Jones

By logging the sounds from mundane to noteworthy, I visually illustrated them to understand somehow, to make sense of it all. It revealed itself as a sort of orchestral score, with densely layered notes. I realized I had experienced stages of grief… anger, depression, and finally, acceptance. Since capturing the pandemic sounds, my senses have sharpened and I am keenly focused on the role that quiet plays in my audible environment now.

Q&A with Heather Jones

During lockdown many people found distractions in puzzles, Netflix, baking, etc. But “The Siren Project” leaned right into the pandemic. How did that influence your perception of what was happening?

It made me think about it every day, all day, instead of turning it off completely. I did the Netflix and puzzle thing, too, but kept noting the sounds throughout. I thought it would be a three-month project, but as it went on my perception changed as I saw that the pandemic would be way bigger than anyone originally imagined.

A snapshot of the page from April 2020, where each line on the page represents a day. The image shows nine horizontal lines for the first nine days of April. On each line are symbols, like x's and circles and chevrons. Each symbol is a different sound.
The first nine days of April 2020. Courtesy Heather Jones

The “musical score” has both personal notes (what you were watching, attempts to meditate, deaths of family) and public ones (the protests, the clapping for workers, the Blue Angels flyover). Did you intend for the data to be more of a personal record or a register of our collective memory?

Probably more of a data collecting project and general noise account, less of a personal journal. But I always like the human part of charts and graphs, little notes and factoids always make them less sterile and richer to me.

What is “The Siren Project” to you now? 

An exercise in endurance?! 

A chart of the first 13 days of November 2020, where each line is a day and the symbols run along each line, representing different sounds. Small annotations call out events like Election Day on the 3rd and construction noise starting at 6:45 am on the 11th.
The first 13 days of November 2020. Courtesy Heather Jones

What was the sound of the construction noise? It plays so prominently in the score. How did the sound of building infrastructure feel to you, especially against the backdrop of the other pandemic noises like the sirens and the helicopters? 

I felt I had to cleave to the will of the developers, and wake or work on their schedule. It made sense that the city continued to build (because it never, ever stops) and also that people renovated home spaces while stuck in them. But I couldn’t believe I was the only one suffering from the clamor, so started looking at stats, like from 3-1-1 complaints going up 3,000%, or new bills being introduced to eliminate helicopter traffic.

The sirens responded to the pandemic, the news copters reported it, but construction sites went on like it wasn’t happening at all, like, “Hey this is NY and we need those luxury condos and capitalism doesn’t stop for anything.” Some people I shared the project with thought I should delineate a marking like between a rototiller verus a jackhammer, or a fire engine versus an ambulance. But that just seemed cruel.

Most of the sounds are man-made noises, including the fans and white noises you used. But there are also sounds of nature, like the birds. What were the trends you noticed with the birds? 

That I strained a lot to hear them, or weeks went by without hearing one. Now when I get out of the city my hearing/senses are really sensitive, and chirping seems louder.

Was all the data collection manual? How did you keep it organized?

Yes, on little squares of paper and pens and paperclips; it was very analog. Then I input my raw notes into an Excel spreadsheet and eventually exported to Adobe Illustrator.

A photo of notes on piles of papers, showing times of day.
Courtesy Heather Jones

What was the biggest challenge with the project?

The daily grind, and wondering if I was training my ear to hear the tiniest of noises at the same time wanting to block it all out. 

From a creative standpoint, how did you cope with re-living every day of the pandemic when you finally put the data into the viz? I imagine this was a very manual process, so was it tough to go through each day again as you transcribed the score? 

Yes, inputting it and trying to wrestle it into something “beautiful” was another challenge altogether, but I tried to focus on what was possibly different about every day, or discover trends at the end of it. It did feel good to “check out” as some feel about that time, like a pause on the rat race, a chance to stop and create something.

A series of photos of the project, with closeups of the key, the notations for each hour of each day, and a full-page view of April 2020.
Courtesy Heather Jones

With 20+ years experience in media and publishing, I have worn the hats of Art Director, Designer, Graphics Producer and almost everything in between. Using whatever tools at hand—text, data, illustration, photographs, motion and sound— I enjoy exploring and navigating the world through graphics. With both my own and other artists’ original work, I love to tell data-driven visual stories with a detailed eye, and I’ve gotten some cool awards to boot!