The Penn State University Sheild
open the search bar
Open the menu

Data Analysis and Music Fuse with Sonification

Printer-friendly version Share
Mark Ballora

Music technology professor Mark Ballora's work in sonification -- the process of taking large data sets and translating them into musical audio files -- is helping researchers studying subjects ranging from squirrels to Antarctic ice. The following article was written by Katie Jacobs of IT Communications.

The squirrels are wary at first.

They carefully sniff at the traps set on the chilly ground of Alaska’s north slope, suspicious of their sudden arrival. But soon, unable to resist the temptation of the small bits of carrot set as bait, they venture inside and snap! They find themselves behind bars.

The traps were set by Michael Sheriff, an assistant professor of mammalogy and ecology at Penn State. He routinely travels to northern Alaska to study the body temperatures of arctic ground squirrels and how they fluctuate throughout the year as the squirrels go about their daily lives.

The temperature changes, which are monitored with internal sensors that Sheriff and his colleagues Brian Barnes and Loren Buck from the University of Alaska surgically implant in the squirrels, show exactly when they hit milestones like the beginning or end of hibernation or mating season.

After a year passes, Sheriff recaptures the squirrels and removes their sensors so he can collect the data. This past year, he shared the collected information with Mark Ballora, associate professor of music technology, back at Penn State.

Ballora is interested in sonification: the process of taking large data sets — like the results of monitoring a group of squirrels’ body temperatures for a year — and translating them into musical audio files. The resulting sonification illustrates the pattern of the data while being pleasing to the ear. A sonification of an earthquake, for example, might get louder as the earthquake gets stronger.

“There’s something about music; everyone reacts to it. People are so responsive to sound,” says Ballora. “So if you can listen to a data set instead of just look at it, maybe that can tap into or create an experience or understanding you wouldn’t otherwise get.” For the full story, click here.