Professor Mark Ballora Translates Numbers To Music
Mark Ballora is a lot of things. He’s a music technology professor at Penn State, where he teaches courses in music production, the history of electroacoustic music, musical acoustics, and software programming for musicians. He’s a UCLA, NYU, and McGill graduate. He’s the author of Essentials of Music Technology. He’s a middle-aged guy who has two piercings in his left earlobe. He’s the guy who sonified data for Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead. And, maybe most notably, he’s the guy who turns natural occurrences like hurricanes, tidal waves, and squirrel life cycles into beautiful music.
“Numbers are numbers. You can translate them and turn them into sounds,” Ballora explained.
Sonification, Ballora’s speciality, is basically taking large sets of data (for instance, the body temperatures of a group of squirrels over the span of a year) and using those data sets to create music.
In the case of the squirrels, Ballora said that the data set was made up of body temperature measurements taken every 30 minutes. “I appreciated the data more once I heard it,” he said. “When they’re active and running around in spring, summer, and early fall, there’s this kind of daily cycle in temperature that gets warmer, then cooler… Yet during hibernation, their body temperature gets less regular. It’s very interesting.”
Ballora said that he and the other professor that he worked with, Michael Sheriff, hope that by making the data set into something that students can listen to rather than simply look at, they’ll make the variations in body temperature easier to understand.
“Books, which have been traditionally distributed media for centuries, are visually based. We’ve been visualizing things since the 1700s. That’s how they educate us,” Ballora said. “I learned graphs in fourth grade, in seventh grade you make pie charts — we’re educated to do that stuff. We’re visual in our thinking. But I think if we can make sound a part of how kids experience science and are introduced to science, then they’ll grow up with audial learning as second nature.”
Though he used warm, deep tones for his sonification of squirrel life cycles, that isn’t Ballora’s only speciality. He used a variety of tones for his sonification of the changes in Antarctic ice in the past 400,000 years. In fact, for that sonification, he created six different sonifications that addressed six different sets of data related to the changes in Antarctic ice, then combined them all in the seventh sonification for a unique listening experience. His sonifications of hurricanes were so popular that they are now being featured in the EMS Museum in the Deike Building. You can walk in and sit in one of the kiosks, then choose your hurricane (one of the eleven available) and listen to the tumultuous sounds presented by the data set of the hurricane in question.
But don’t think that Ballora is all work and no play. The professor worked with Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead to create a sonification called Earthdance #1, a sonification that Hart calls his “musical offering to the Earth.” The piece was created using sonifications of the magnetic resonances of the earth, along with processed sounds of nature.
“Mickey Hart, one of the drummers from The Grateful Dead and somebody that I’ve always admired, was working on this project and wanted sonifications, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ So I offered to help and they took me up on it,” Ballora said. “I got my foot in Mickey’s door and was able to stay there because of these digital debriefings that everyone in my classes seems to hate, but it’s not all glamor and mixing cool stuff. It’s knowing your stuff. It’s knowing the mechanics of it all and how to use those mechanics.”
When asked how he compares to the rest of the professors in the Music Technology department, Ballora chuckled. “I think I’ve got more of a foot in music than most of the people there. I do a lot of the strange stuff. No one else there has done a project with Mickey Hart. I’m kind of the weird guy there, which I think is a good thing.”
Ballora also spoke at TEDxPSU about his experience in music technology. In his speech, titled “Opening Your Ears to Data,” Ballora shows a rapt audience how data sets informing scientists of things like tidal waves or sun quakes can be translated into music.
“The universe, like music, consists of vibrations. If listened to in the right way, shouldn’t they sound beautiful? Can the sounds of science satisfy the human thirst for music? Can the sounds of science teach us about science?” Ballora says in his presentation. “Ultimately, of course, my goal would be to drive the golden spike, and to create sonifications that are not only musically compelling, but also scientifically informative. If I don’t do it, I’m sure that somebody else will. If that somebody else turns out to be one of my students, that would be just fine with me, too.”
If you’re interested in becoming one of Mark Ballora’s students, you’re in luck. A Music Technology major was added to the College of Liberal Arts just last summer. Ballora says that the major pairs nicely with electrical engineering, which makes sense professionally. He encourages people to remember that it’s still a music degree and that you’ll still have to audition as all of the other music students do.
Ballora has no plans for any dramatic life change in the future. He wants to continue sonifying things and finding translations between music and science. “Somebody’s gonna have a breakthrough there someday,” Ballora said. “And if I’m not the one to do it, I hope it’s the bloom of a seed that I’ve planted somewhere through the new major here at Penn State.”