Vocabulary Pieces is the second of three Information Aesthetics works examining the Netherlands through auralizing data and statistics. The first work Population Pieces for Orkest de Ereprijs focused on the Dutch people. This, the second, focuses on the Dutch language, with the third, Landscape Pieces depicting information relating to the architecture and landscape of the country.

Information Aesthetics explores the beauty of data and its representation. One of the main interests is informing a musical structure with the purity of form that is comparable to the fundamental truth of data.

Vocabulary Pieces falls into eight short movements, examining three topics: Newspaper Headlines, Grammar and Swearing. It covers data on the use of the Dutch language in its written form: newspaper writing (Headlines I, II & III), children’s books and novels (Grammar I) and internet blogs (Swearing III); in historical or traditional texts (Grammar II); and in the spoken word (Swearing I and II).

(A more detailed explanation of how each movement is constructed is below.)


Work Structure 

1 Headlines I – CIJFERS VOOR KAMPIOEN WEG (De Telegraaf)
2 Grammar I
4 Swearing I – How?
5 Swearing II – Who?
6 Swearing III – When?
8 Grammar II



These movements create music from an analysis of the headlines of three Dutch newspapers: the broadsheet ‘NRC Handelsblad’, the tabloid ‘De Telegraaf’ and the free paper ‘Metro’. On the 4th August 2009 I collected together all the headlines from each newspaper, and from this, created an ‘average’ headline for each. The idea was to see if, in the headline writing, each paper had a different and discernible style, and to highlight these differences in the music. I gathered the following data:

Metro De Telegraaf NRC Handelsblad
Average Length of Headline (no. of words) 4.5 4 5.25
Average Length of Words (no. of characters per word) 5.8 6.1 7.8
Average No. of Syllables (per word) 1.8 1.9 1.9

This information together with the list of most frequently occurring words in each newspaper renders the following nonsense ‘average’ headlines:




The musical representations take a different chord for each word, with pizzicato strings counting the characters and words. The gesture in the crotales and glockenspiel mark the average word length.


Grammar I

The grammar movements stem from an investigation into the relationship between linguistic syntax and musical syntax. The movements consist of tonal chorales directly transcribed from written texts.

While analyzing word order in Dutch sentences I noticed a relationship with the order in which chords come in tonal harmony: particular chords tend to begin a phrase, others finish (normally in a standard group order, a cadence), and certain chords have a higher probability of following others. Likewise in grammar, nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives all have their place in a sentence, an order which tends to be adhered to rather strictly.

While holding on to the phrase structure, commas give a short pause, full stops a lengthy pause, I directly mapped each part of speech to a chord.

Part of Speech Noun Verb Pronoun Adverb Adjective Article Preposition Conjunction Interjection
Chord I IV VI II V7 V III III Cluster

The resultant chorales are, although occasionally strange, mainly fully functional.

In Grammar I there are four chorales: a very slow high one in the bowed crotales, where across the whole movement we hear just the insinuation of one single phrase (derived from Gerard Reve); another chorale so low we can barely hear the notes until the last bar when it rises in register (derived from the Diary of Anne Frank); the main focus of the movement is the string chorale (derived from Kikker is verliefd by Max Veldhuijs); and a very fast punched-out chorale in the brass (derived from Het Feest van Nijntje by Dick Bruna).


Grammar II

This follows the same principle as Grammar I, taking as its source text the Dutch national anthem. The melody of Het Wilhelmus appears, dreamily, in the glockenspiel for the second verse. The chords are no longer explicitly tonal. The rhythmic duration of each chord derives from the number of characters in the corresponding word. Second syllables are played by the strings, and third syllables by piano and percussion.


Swearing I – How?

The movement takes a list of some favourite Dutch swear words. Each different consonant sound is given it’s own representative musical sound while each vowel sound is played by the lower winds, horns, violas and cellos – where each different vowel sound is assigned a different combination of these instruments. By removing the words, and therefore any shock effect, we can clearly hear the predominance of a small few consonant and vowel sounds. This highlights the overwhelming preference in swear words for hard and aggressive consonant sounds (g, t, d, p, k) and hard vowel sounds (! and “).

The words appear in alphabetical order, with the rhythms roughly following the natural rhythm of speech – although speeding up as the movement goes on.

The words are, in order of appearance: Fuck (bar 1), God (bar 3), Godsamme (bar 4), Godver (bar 5), Godverdomme (bar 6), GVD (bar 7), Jezus (bar 8), Jezus Christus (bar 9), Jezus mina (bar 10), Kanker (bar 11), Klote (bar 12), Kut (bar 13 beat 1), Pest (bar 13 beat 2), Pleures (bar 14), Pokken (bar 15), Potverdomme (bar 16), Potverdorie (bar 17-18), Shit (bar 19), Tering (bar 19), Tyfus (bar 20), Verdomme (bar 20), Verdorie (bar 20), Verrek (bar 21-22).


Swearing II – Who?

The movement works with the statistics relating to the number of people who admit to swearing, split into age groups, for the years 1990, 2000 and 2007.

1st Violin I: 18-24 years old 2nd Violin I: 25-34 years old Violin II: 35-44 years old Viola: 45-54 years old Cello: 55-64 years old Contrabass: 65+ years old

A certain amount of artistic license was taken in setting the music. I assumed, without any substantiation, that swearers hang around together, and that people who associate with swearers are also more likely to swear themselves and so we find pockets of swearers convening with each other, rather than a perfectly equal spread.

Nevertheless, you can hear not only the changes in the amount of people swearing through the years, by following each individual voice (particularly the 2007 increase in swearing among 65+ year olds) but also the ratio changes in the swearing between the different age groups.


Swearing III – When?

The final Swearing movement takes us online. It displays the frequency of swearing once we are cloaked in the (relative) anonymity of the internet. It takes 20 people’s Twitter blogs, and shows that even when restricted to 140 characters we still heavily rely on swearing as a powerful and colourful means of communication.

Each of the violins’ running 16th notes represents one word in each of those blogs. and every time one of those words is a swear word we hear an ‘attention-grabbing’ sound from the orchestra. Each blog is assigned a different sound/gesture associated with getting people’s attention (one of swearing’s many roles): from car horns to police whistles, cymbal crashes to brass hit chords. The work is full of white-note clusters, and along with the comedic element in some of the sounds (swearing is also frequently used for comedy effect) it tries to depict the sort of joyous childish revelry gained from using swear words for the first time.

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