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Stanford Report, October 22, 2003

Composer Jonathan Berger creates theme music for Clark Center


Music for the Dedication of the Clark Center is a three-part work by composer Jonathan Berger, an associate professor of music. The piece was created in honor of the center's Oct. 24 grand opening and embodies the spirit of Bio-X, according to Berger.

"When Matthew Scott, the Bio-X program chair, commissioned the music, he described the building as a place in which cross-pollination of ideas and research would be inevitable," Berger said. Accordingly, he brought together disparate sound sources to create the multi-faceted composition. Some of the music comes from Berger's research using sound to represent and interpret complex biochemical data. Another element is the work of a former doctoral student, Tamara Smyth, who generated sounds by computer modeling of a bird's voice box. The piece also incorporates stringed musical instruments.

The first part of the composition combines brushed cymbals and bird sounds that will be piped around the outside balconies of the Clark Center during a pre-ceremony tour of the building. The second part is a very brief percussive sound sequence that will herald the beginning of the ceremony. "I hope that this sequence will become a sort of 'sound icon' of Bio-X," Berger said.

"Fanfare," the main section of the composition, will officially open the ceremony. It will be performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the university's ensemble in residence, accompanied by birdlike and percussive computer sounds.

But Berger's music is more than merriment. It may form the basis of new medical diagnostic tools for early detection and intervention where visual methods fall short. "There are cases when you can hear profound but subtle changes that you can't see, so there are probably certain instances where it will offer possibility where none exists," explained Berger, a Bio-X affiliate himself.

Berger's work is based on a technique known as sonification, in which sound is used to represent complex data in simple ways. Familiar applications of sonification include the ringing of an alarm clock, the tone of a flat line on a heart monitor and assistive technologies, such as beeping sidewalks. "The idea of sonifying the world for blind people has really made me stop and think," Berger said.

Hyperspectral images of colon cells, like the ones above, can be digitized to turn data into music. Photo courtesy of Mauro Maggioni.

The computer is the chief tool in sonification research. In the Bio-X dedication piece, for example, Berger used high-resolution images of colon cells embedded with detailed data on their chemistry and structure. A software tool links the images and their underlying data to various properties of sound. Moving a cursor over the image produces sounds that vary for cells in different chemical states. Sonification can be used in this way to reveal auditory differences between healthy and diseased colon cells, Berger explained.

The stethoscope and the auto mechanic's language of pings and knocks serve as examples in which a defined set of sounds is used for simple and reliable diagnosis, he said, adding: "The stethoscope is an incredibly arcane object. It is amazing that physicians still rely on it because it is the lowest tech thing they carry, [yet it is] the most reliable thing they carry."

Although Berger describes sonification as an emerging technology, the concept dates back to the 17th century, when German astronomer Johannes Kepler used the principles of musical harmony to describe planetary orbits around the sun. But according to Berger, biomedical applications of sonification "have a ways to go. We are clearly hearing different chemistries but are not yet able to harness it into a musical language that is as easy to define as a ping, a knock, a rattle, a click, a clack."

For Berger, the next challenge is to develop a set of tools for routine medical analysis. "Our goal is to provide new medical listening tools to assist physicians in interpreting the massive data generated by current and emerging medical imaging techniques," he said. "We hope to reinvent the stethoscope."


Czerne M. Reid is a science-writing intern with the Stanford News Service.

Jonathan Berger