Some say music is food for the soul. Many have studied the science behind music, but has anyone thought about the music behind science? Welcome to the world of Sonification.
Sonification is a process which transforms data, such as graphs, charts and visual data into music in the form of soundwaves. It takes complex data with large numbers and abstruse variables and turns them into melodies; something that people can understand. One could listen to technical data such as, the sudden drop of a stock price, increase in the Earth’s temperature, seismographic data and protein sequences.
A scientist and expert on music technology, Mark Ballora states that it is akin to listening to the soundtrack to a movie. It takes you into the movie world and makes it a more visceral phenomenon. He believes that data shouldn’t be an unusual thing for us to listen and that through sonification we can achieve a more intuitive understanding of the scientific data than from a visual presentation.
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND IT
Mark Ballora, an expert on music technology at Pennsylvania State University in State College, lived and breathed music. He played the piano, listened to Beatles records, and attended Grateful Dead gigs.
When a physiologist asked if him if he had any interest in making sound out of heart rate variability data, Ballora thought it sounded great and thus began his journey. In the past 20 years, he has collaborated with scientists to turn different data into music, from the energy emitted by a neutron star to the body temperature cycle of arctic squirrels. In June, Ballora received two $50,000 grants from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative to help marine biologists translate data from the deep ocean into sound.
HOW CAN DATA BE TURNED INTO SOUND WAVES?
The first step into turning data into sound is to get familiar with data and understand what it means. When Mark worked on his projects, he met a lot of scientists and tried to understand the nature of their work.
The second step is to figure out what kind of sound can perfectly fit the data. Mark speaks about his solar wind project (charged particles shed from the sun that create aurora borealis when they hit Earth’s atmosphere) where he created a shifting, shimmery sound.
For tropical storms, he created a swirling noise that would make it seem like a tornado was present. He’s thus worked on solar wind, sunquakes, Earth’s electromagnetic resonances (electromagnetic waves that form between the Earth’s surface and its upper atmosphere) and also a representation of the motion of the planets in the solar system, the signal from a rotating neutron star and gravitational waves stretching space-time.
SONIFICATION HAS HELPED OTHER SCIENTISTS WITH THEIR WORK
Wanda Diaz Merced, an astrophysicist at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town lost her sight which rendered her incapable of continuing her work. However, she worked with programmers to come up with a way to listen to her data.
This helped her continue her work and actually helped her discover the presence of electromagnetic waves produced by the exchange of energy between particles during high-energy stellar explosions, something that nobody had detected by looking only at graphs.
She is now able to work at the same level that she could work when she was sighted and a lot of her colleagues have followed suit and now use sonification software to observe patterns that they can more readily hear than they can see.
Another is that of Peter Larsen, the biologist who came up with something known as ‘Microbial Bebop’. Larsen has converted his data of microbial diversity at different locations to dramatically changing music which maps to a bloom microbial abundance of a particular species and every time a cymbal crashes it projects a moment when Rickettsiales, a particular microbe, is the most prevalent microbe in that area of the ocean.
Author’s Note: As Mark Ballora said, I think we should try to put educational programs together so that young people grow up considering science to be something that you listen to as well as something you look at. As humans, we all respond to music: If we can leverage that with science, there’s a real chance of giving students a much. It won’t be too long before we will be tapping to the beat of fine data turned music.