2022 Shortlist

A Song of Crowns and Tears

Country/area: Switzerland

Organisation: privat

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 28/03/2021

Credit: Covid-19, Simon Huwiler


Simon Huwiler is a data journalist from Switzerland. He currently works for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (nzz). He is a trained software developer and journalist and has a strong passion for experimental visualisations. He is convinced that data should not only be presented with diagrams.

More about him: www.journalist.sh

Project description:

As a journalist, I work with Covid-19 data every day. The incidence is rising, more deaths, hospitalisations are increasing, … But with each new wave of the pandemic, these figures lost a little of their horror for me. Victims became emotionless numbers. With «A Song of Crowns and Tears» I wanted to change this. The pandemic, the suffering, the victims should become audible. In this project, numbers should be freed from their emotionlessness and show what it’s really about: people.

Impact reached:

The video on Twitter, Youtube and Reddit spread surprisingly within a very short time. Newspapers from abroad reported on it, radio stations in the USA played the piece, I was asked for interviews and an artist even produced a dance performance based on «Crowns and Tears».

But what moved me the most was all the feedback. People who wrote to me that they were touched by this project.

Techniques/technologies used:

«A Song of Crowns and Tears» is based on the official figures of the Swiss state. These figures are used to automatically generate punch cards. The song is imported from a MusicXML and placed on the graphics. The transformation is done with Python.

The song itself was written manually using the available data in the music notation software MuseScore (more about how the music was written in the next question). The punched cards were printed on the home printer, glued together and punched in painstaking work.

What was the hardest part of this project?

What does a pandemic sound like? What does data sound like? My first attempt: Each note represents a certain number of deaths. After writing a few bars, I had to realise: That doesn’t work. . Intensity and emotion in music is not about stacking more notes together. Sometimes nothing can hit you more than a quarter break. Dissonancec, tempo, chords, dynamics – so many things bring music to live. So I changed my approach and tried to write a corresponding soundtrack to the data. On the right side of my screen I had the data, day by day. Ond the left the music notation software. I went through every day in the data and looked for the corresponding sound, that respresents the data and still follows the rules of music. This was probably the hardest part.

Writing the scripts that transfer music and data to punch cards was straightforward. Producing the actual punch card, on the other hand, was challenging and took dozens of attempts until the instrument was able to play the four-metre-long punch card correctly.

What can others learn from this project?

There are so many good Covid 19 visualisations, there is not much to learn from “A Song of Crowns and Tears”. Only perhaps: Sometimes it is worthwhile to present data in a different way than usual and to experiment with other modes of representation.

Project links: