Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Paleontological Sonification: Letting Music Bring Fossils to Your Ears

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Paleontological Sonification: Letting Music Bring Fossils to Your Ears

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Sonification is the process of translating any type of data into sound. In paleontology, it is possible to render various aspects of fossil shapes, such as cephalopod suture patterns or brachiopod commissure lines, as a series of musical tones that can be recognized easily by the human ear. Paleontological applications of sonification might enable auditory perception of morphologic patterns in fossils that may or may not be visually apparent. Some simple classroom demonstrations can help students understand the potential of using sound to identify different types of fossils with their eyes closed (i.e., using their ears alone).

INTRODUCTION

In teaching descriptive aspects of paleontology to university students, it is possible to render various aspects of fossil shapes as a series of musical tones that can be recognized easily by the human ear. Paleontological applications of sonification (the representation of any type of data via sound) can enable auditory perception of morphologic patterns in fossils that may or may not be visually apparent. This is a novel approach to supplement the traditional hands-on laboratory experiences with non-traditional ears-on experiences to enhance students' perceptions of important shape information in paleontology.

Simple classroom demonstrations and hands-on lab exercises can help students understand the potential of using sound to identify different types of fossils with their eyes closed - that is, using their ears alone. Some promising examples from the fossil record include sonified septal sutures of cephalopods, facial sutures of trilobites, commissures of brachiopods, hinge dentition of pelecypods, coiling patterns of gastropods, and trackways of dinosaurs.

Paleontologists tend to be visually oriented. In fact, it might be said that paleontologists are among the most precise observers of details in natural objects, because taxonomically and/or evolutionarily significant patterns in fossil shapes almost always are detected by sight. But we humans have five senses that might be employed in scientific interpretation (Pestrong, 2000; Rosenberg, 2000), so there is no justification for limiting our perception of fossils to just one of those senses. In fact, the sense of touch alone has proven to be extremely effective for perceiving crucial details of fossil shapes (Vermeij, 1996).

Sonification might enable auditory perception of morphologic patterns in fossils that may or may not be visually apparent. Sonification is not a mysterious or even difficult process - anyone who has sung a song out of a songbook or played a tune on an instrument from a piece of sheet music has sonified (translated the visual code of musical notes printed in black and white on a page into sound).

Human hearing is an amazingly acute sense (Helmholtz, 1954; Shuter, 1968; Serafine, 1988; Bregman, 1990). We respond immediately and involuntarily to familiar, simple sound signals, such as the ring of a telephone or the honk of an automobile horn. We can identify individual humans solely by their unique voice qualities, we can discriminate their moods and intentions largely by the cadence and tone of their voices, and we often can determine where they grew up merely by the particular accent and dialect they speak.

We discriminate characteristic sounds in nature with ease. Even a preschooler can distinguish a cat from a dog purely by the sound it makes. It takes no sophistication for us to distinguish a seagull from an owl by its characteristic bird call. Many animals, such as apes, wolves and whales, communicate with one another in their family groups by means of particular sound signals. In fact, individual whales in a pod apparently recognize each other by their own unique songs, and some kinds of apes apparently recognize individual family members by their own distinctive vocal characteristics.

VISUAL IMAGES DERIVED FROM SOUNDS

Evocative sounds can generate vivid images in our mind's eye. …

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