Blog Post
Composing COVID-19 

Composing COVID-19

Posted on
16 Sep 2020
Music & Medicine
16 Sep 2020 • Music & Medicine
Composing COVID-19; a pattern of DNA and loudspeakers.

Viral Audio

What does COVID-19 sound like? Better yet, how does the chemical composition—the sequence of amino acids that make up protein chains—translate into a musical composition that we can study to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus?Since well before the global pandemic, musicians and scientists alike have been assigning note values (like piano keys) to units of genetic code. As early as 2003, the idea was materialized in when microbiologist Dr. Aurora Sanchez Sousa created a musical scale from chemical bases. Later, in 2017, Mark D. Temple of Western Sydney University published "" in BMC Bioinformatics; he proposed a system of DNA sonification intended to have more overall musicality by controlling variables such as melodic range. This can be experienced with his that uses an algorithm to express arrangements of codons (triads of RNA or DNA nucleotides) into musical samples. Listen to the example from his website below.
Human Telomeric DNA

DNA Sonification

Mark Temple's depiction of DNA sonification.Fast-forwarding to today, where the best and brightest minds are uniting to find effective treatment or vaccine: Can music really help crack the case of the novel coronavirus?

The ear can process so much more complex structure in real time than the eye, even with an electron microscope. By listening to this virus, the human brain can understand so much more about this pathogen.

— Markus Buehler

Coronavirus Counterpoint

Markus Buehler, a professor of engineering and the principal investigator at MIT’s Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics, has furthered the field of genetic sonification with his musical representations of the coronavirus spike protein. He and his team have developed their own algorithm to convert genetic code to musical counterpoint: the discipline of constructing interplay between multiple melodies.Composer Johann Sebastian Bach was a master of this method, as his fugues were just as mathematical as they were musical (as detailed in Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”). Similarly, Pachelbel's Canon (officially titled “Canon in D Major,” and more easily recognized as ), famously introduces counterpoint by layering more melodic layers that play off of one another as the piece progresses. In the case of Buehler and his team, we can hear a multitude of musical motifs play simultaneously. In contrast to Temple's transcript of telomeres, here is an aural manifestation of amino acids.

Instrumental Interpretation

So why does human DNA sound like a piano, and why does a pathogenic virus sound like a traditional Japanese stringed instrument? The short answer is that there is no rhyme or reason, so to speak, other than artistic expression. Artist Eric Drass, for instance, had a different take on instrumentation.

Auditory Analogs

As Fast Company about Drass, “It turns out COVID-19 sounds more like synth-pop than we thought.” As more information and research have become available, we’re beginning to understand this is not necessarily the case. There is nothing intrinsically “synth-like” or “pop” about it. The core benefit, as we're led to believe, lies in interpreting the patterns and behaviors through sound rather than choosing a particular instrument or aesthetic. In this regard, auditory analogs allow us to experience the vibrational elements of a virus rather than studying a two-dimensional static image. Because of the dynamic nature of the vibrations, the temporal aspects of listening to music naturally lend themselves to better observe these extensive models.Whether or not the solution is in the sound or in the ear of the beholder, translating DNA sequences to music offers a fresh perspective on studying the complexities of a virus we have yet to fully understand.
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