Listen out for bugs that sing

A Northumbria University lecturer has helped devise a scheme to use music to catch computer bugs.

Dr Paul Vickers from Northumbria and Professor James Alty from Loughborough University’s Department of Computer Science have come up with an idea that would see features of computer programming languages being given short, musical themes. All similar instructions would be given related tunes so that any bug would be easily identified within the system.

“To ensure the musicality of the system and to prevent harmonic clashes we designed all the tunes so that they complemented each other,” said Paul, a principal lecturer in Informatics.

“It works because it allows the programmer to build a mental expectation of how the music should unfold over time. If the music deviates from its expected ‘score’ then that signifies the possible presence of an error (bug) in the program.”

The researchers first tested the ability of the average non-musician to distinguish differences like musical pitch using sounds similar to those made by a musical instrument. The results were good with most people able to discriminate between pitches.

They then set up software that mapped pitch and melodic contour information to structural elements in the programming language Pascal. They used similar tunes to represent similar programming instructions.

The system has already been tested with Computer Science students from Loughborough University and those who could “hear’’ the code as well as see it found more bugs than those who just had the visual representations.

A similar approach could be used in the future to open up a whole new world for visually impaired programmers by providing audio-enhanced program development systems.

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