Making music from diabetes data

Edinburgh Napier academic uses personal experience of living with condition to inspire composition

Date posted

4 July 2018

09:28

Last updated

4 July 2018

An Edinburgh Napier academic is using his personal experience of living with diabetes to fuel his passion for making music.

Dr Zack Moir, lecturer in popular music at the University, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 17-years-old.

Living with the condition sees Zack walk a daily tightrope as he manages the disease. The constant battle of making sure that his insulin doses match his food intake is something that he has had to live with on a day-to-day basis for a number of years.

However, after receiving an insulin pump in 2014 as part of his treatment, the condition has become easier to manage, not least because he now no longer has to inject himself 8-10 times a day.

But in addition to contributing to his health improvements, the pump has also brought new inspiration to another key part of the academic’s life – his music making.

A Medtronic insulin pump has the ability to upload a user’s data to a computer and present it in a series of highly informative tables and graphs.

On studying his own insulin use, Zack saw that the rise and fall of some of the graph lines could in fact represent elements of music so he decided to convert one of the graphs into just that.

Taking statistics from the month of January in 2016 – including figures for blood glucose levels, the amount of active insulin in his system, the doses of insulin he gives himself whenever he eats carbohydrate and the total amount of insulin he takes each day – he set about turning these figures into specific pitches.

He then created a track made from sounds that are related to the daily experience of living with diabetes. Zack sampled the sounds of some of his diabetes paraphernalia including the sound of an insulin vial being struck, the twang of a blood glucose test strip, the beep of a blood glucose meter and the zip of the case that the meter is stored within.

After all the elements of the project were brought together, the result was an experimental track that represented the various ebbs and flows of living with diabetes.

Behind the process...

Zack said: “I’m a bit of a self-confessed geek and after studying the data from my insulin pump intensely for a certain period of time, I started to see structures that felt ‘musical’ to me within the graphs and data that I was viewing. One idea led to another and I quickly built up an intricate tapestry of musical information that I think is at times chaotic and more relaxed at other points – mirroring what living with the condition is like.

“The result of the project is an experimental synthesiser type track that a live musician improvises over using a basic score that gives a sketch of the ups and downs of these aspects of the disease. The cumulative effect of the musical components conveys the nature of the physical feelings associated with high/low blood sugars.

“It is my job, as the soloist in this piece, to make sense of the chaos of the music that is derived from the data and react musically to the sounds produced. Sometimes this is beautiful and tranquil, and other times it is tumultuous and distressing, again, mirroring daily life with this unpleasant condition.”

The final track has recently been recorded and mixed in the studios of Edinburgh Napier University and has been released to stream and purchase with all funds raised being donated directly to Diabetes UK on an ongoing basis.

Diabetes UK is one of the largest funders of diabetes research in the UK. The charity supports pioneering research into cause and prevention, improving care and treatment, and working towards finding a cure.

Zack has also publically performed the piece, most recently in Stockholm at the Royal College of Music, as doors continue to open as a result of his musical wellbeing journey.

He added: “Despite not being a great deal of fun to have a condition that can make you feel pretty rough a lot of the time, I should make it clear that I am very aware that many people are far worse off than I am. However, I’ve always been interested in turning negatives into positives and I feel that this process has helped me do just that with my own experience of living with diabetes.”

“It sounds cheesy but I like to think I see music a little differently to the norm and throughout the process of making this track, I’ve tried to push the boundaries of my approach to composition. Taking something that is really personal to me and turning it into something that others can both listen to and learn a little bit more about what it is like to live with diabetes has been a really enjoyable process.”

The track – IDDM – by Zack Moir is now available to stream on Spotify and is available to purchase through iTunes.

How do you make music from diabetes data?