Music has long been speculated to have played a fundamental part in human evolution.
Some theories suggest that music preceded speech or was a method of sexual signalling, but while those continue to be debated, what cannot be disputed is the response that music universally provokes in mankind.
Scientists are now investigating ways of harnessing this power to help them with the analysis and presentation of complex data.
Dr Mark Ballora, associate professor of music technology at Penn State University, transforms information from the natural world into sound – a process called sonification.
Both the body temperatures of hibernating Arctic ground squirrels, and changes in the Antarctic ice over the past 400,000 years are among the diverse collections of natural data Dr Ballora has translated into music, with the aim of improving people’s understanding of scientific information.
“Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists write about the human perception of music, and how the human animal is naturally inclined to be responsive to it,” Dr Ballora says.
“Not everyone likes the same music, but you won’t find anyone who doesn’t like music of some kind.
"Given our natural responsiveness to music, it seems that the sciences can only benefit by making use of it in their studies, as long as it is used in the right way.”
His sonifications reveal the patterns found in the data of academic studies.
The intention is that the listener's pleasant musical experience makes evaluating the data easier than interpreting traditional representations such as graphs.
Dr Ballora has used sound to demonstrate the intensity and positioning of 11 hurricanes, as well as illustrating measurements of an earthquake from different locations.
Increases, decreases and other comparable elements found in the scientific data control how the audio behaves, changing the volume, pitch, tempo and other types of sound variation.
“How to create a sound that is pleasing enough to listen to and is also informative about the behaviour of the data – these are the challenges of sonification,” he says.
“It has great potential for multi-dimensional data, as the ear is quite adept at following multiple streams of information, such as when we listen to multiple musical lines in chamber music.
“It can be scaled to whatever degree is necessary, so that a dataset describing hours, days or years of activity can be played over a timescale on the order of seconds or minutes.”
Dr Ballora’s work has so far been presented to secondary school pupils, university students and meteorological professionals where he says initial responses have been positive.
He now plans to produce more sonifications using natural phenomena and hopes they may soon also feature in interactive museum exhibitions.
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