Music Technology Professor Mark Ballora’s ultimate goal is to create work that musicians think is cool and scientists think is informative.
Ballora, who described himself as “a musician with science envy,” is creating these works through sonification, a process that turns data into audio. Sonifications by Ballora were recently used in an album by music legend Mickey Hart, formerly of The Grateful Dead. Ballora said he sonified a variety of astrophysical data sets, anything from solar winds to vibrations from the sun, for the album.
“There is information that ears get that the eyes can’t get,” Ballora said.
Hart also wore a “brain computer interface technology emotive helmet” and Ballora took his brain activity data set and sonified it so the data could be heard. Ballora said the significance of something like this is that in the future, doctors could research brain function using auditory data and perhaps diagnose something that couldn’t have been diagnosed visually.
“Different senses are able to give us different types of information,” Ballora said. “Songs are sometimes better able to take you back to an event in the past.”
Ballora said sonification is starting to become a “hot topic,” and people in different fields are becoming interested in this new way of interpreting information.
Brian Orland, from the Department of Landscape Architecture at Penn State, is co-director of a group on campus called Studio Lab. Orland said the group consists of professors and students from different fields at Penn State working together to understand interdisciplinary data.
“It’s a common meeting place for all of us,” Orland said.
Orland and Studio Lab Co-Director Nilam Ram, professor of health and human development and psychology, were interested in working with Ballora in an event to showcase sonification.
Orland, who has been working with data visualization for over 25 years, said he often wants to communicate complicated information to people, and sound might be a better platform to do so.
“You can’t rely on someone to watch something all the time,” Orland said. “For health systems in general, it is easier to use sound signals.”
Ram currently studies how people change over time and tracks information on the health and well-being of adults over a lifespan. He said sonification might help in his research.
He also said that with a growing interest in sonification, Studio Lab is working on an event set for February where world-renowned drummers will play data sets. The purpose of the event is to have artists and scientists work together.
“We want to listen to the data and make the data music. There is an aesthetic component there,” Ram said.