5 Examples of Musical DNA in Art and Science
When musicians come from a lineage of talent and success, we often say that music is in their DNA. It’s just a turn of phrase - nobody means that their protein structure is literally made of musical notes. But that hasn’t stopped artists and scientists from exploring the idea of "DNA music".
Music and DNA have several common traits. For example, they both rely on fundamental building blocks arranged in patterns, using repetition to acquire structure. In music, the notes of a scale are like the nucleotide bases that look like rungs in the DNA ladder. DNA strands are like the strings of notes that form chords and melodies.
As melodies and chords grow into full songs, they acquire structure and convey meaning on an emotional level. They also carry information at a shared cultural level. DNA similarly carries genetic information that determines an organism's characteristics and traits. They evolve over time to reveal new biological organisms, the same way genres of music change over time.
In this article we’ll share some of our favorite examples of DNA music, including generative music compositions, innovative software, and some music theory concepts. Here's an overview of the main sections:
Musicians inspired by the concept of DNA
Since its discovery in 1953, countless musicians have referenced DNA as part of their artist monicker and song/album titles.
A classic example is the band DNA, featuring members guitarist Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori, Robin Crutchfield, and Tim Wright. They were famously picked up by Brian Eno as part of his New York no-wave live album compilation in the late 70s.
Kendrick Lamar’s hit song DNA is regarded as one of his greatest hits, with over 242 million views on YouTube and 925 million on Spotify. The song's lyrics deal with issues of both positive and negative identity in black culture. He performed DNA live at the 2018 Grammy’s, the same year he won best rap album for Damn.
New York battle rapper DNA is a prolific and longstanding figure in the east coast KOTD and URL leagues. A 2011 battle between DNA and Dizaster was sponsored by Drake and acquired over 5.5 million views. As an underground scene, this went on to be one of the most viewed battles of all time in the United States.
While each of these artists were inspired by the word DNA in some way, there's no evidence that the structure of their music was based on genetic code. That's a problem that scientists and music theorists have tackled, however. We'll move onto that subject next.
Mark Temple, David Deemer, and DNA sonification
Medical molecular biologist Mark Temple made headlines in 2022 after publishing his technique of protein sequence sonification in Smithsonian Magazine. He created a web app with a DNA sonification algorithm that assigns single notes to each of the four nucleotides (ACGT), building up musical sequences to form DNA songs.
As a research scientist, Temple’s initial goal was to listen to DNA sequences while viewing them. He theorized that data visualization would more engaging with a sonic element. When you're studying something as repetitive as DNA sequencing, it’s helpful to engage both the visual and auditory senses. Data sonification has been a popular scientific method amongst astronomers for the same reason.
Temple wasn’t the first person to apply notes to nucleotides. In August 1982, biomolecular engineer David Deemer published his theory of DNA music in OMNI magazine. You can find a small sample of his music below:
Deemer explained that three of the nucleotides already shared a letter with musical notes (ACG), so he simply swapped the letter T for an E note. The four notes together stack up as an Aminor7 chord (ACEG) and he used these to create music compositions on piano.
Temple and Deemer’s work were likely inspired by the publication of a popular book published in 1980 called Godel Escher and Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Holfstadter. This quote in particular stands out:
“Imagine the mRNA to be like a long piece of magnetic recording tape, and the ribosome to be like a tape recorder. As the tape passes through the playing head of the recorder, it is "read" and converted into music, or other sounds...When a 'tape' of mRNA passes through the 'playing head' of a ribosome, the 'notes' produced are amino acids and the pieces of music they make up are proteins.” - Holfstadter, G.E.B
As a theoretical structure, DNA strands don't have any implicit rhythm. In 1986, Japanese scientist Susume Ohno and his wife Midori Aoyama set out to solve this problem. They began modeling their own system for listening to genomes and their coding sequences.
Aoyama applied the rhythm of classic melodies to Ohno’s music DNA data in order to produce something that sounded more inherently musical. This trend has continued today with many other scientists following their lead.
DNA Music Theory: Chord Progression Helix
So far we've looked at the transcription of DNA and proteins into single-note melodies. As a music theory teacher, I’ve noticed a different set of similarities between chord progressions and DNA strands. These comparisons are just for fun and intended as a metaphor. They move the conversation from horizontal to vertical harmony.
We’re all familiar with the shape of the double helix. As you probably learned in science class, each rung of the DNA ladder comes from a hydrogen bond between one of four fundamental nucleotides: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T).
The basic building block of a chord progression comes from the relationship between two chords. Like nucleotides, there are four possible triads: Major, Minor, Diminished, and Augmented. Musicians extend and modify these triads to add color.
The four nucleotides (ACGT) are made of two bases (phosphate and nitrogen), bonded by sugar. Similarly, a musical triad is composed of two intervals (major and minor thirds), bonded by vertical integration.
The phosphate and nitrogen molecules are composed of individual atoms, the same way major and minor third intervals are composed of individual notes.
Again, these are purely symbolic comparisons. As you go deeper into the complexity of music and genetic theory, the asymmetries between them will become apparent. For example, a phosphate and nitrogen base have more atoms than the number of notes in a triad.
Discrepancies like this are to be expected because music and DNA are not literally the same thing. If you're interested in learning about a DNA music theory that's grounded in physics, we'll have a look at Sternheimer's model of protein music.
The hard science of Sternheimer’s “Protein Music”
The experiments carried out by Temple and Deemer were mostly for fun. They focused on nucleotide sonification with arbitrary notes. In other words, they could have used any notes and it would have had the same value in the DNA research process.
French physicist Joël Sternheimer took a more literal approach by measuring the frequency of quantum scaling waves found in protein sequences and scaling them down by 76 octaves until they arrived at corresponding frequencies that were audible to humans.
Sternheimer delivered a lecture on this protein music in 1993 that highlighted some of his most important discoveries. I’ll summarize them for you here.
Amino acids emit quantum wave signals with inaudible frequencies: “The amino acid ... emits a signal. This signal is a wave of a quantum nature which is precisely called a scaling wave. This signal has a certain frequency and a certain wavelength. Its wavelength is given by ... the ratio of Planck´s constant over the product of the mass times the speed of the amino-acid.”
The frequencies emitted by these protein sequences are not random: “As each of those vibrations itself contains harmonics ... the succession of frequencies of those amino acids ... will therefore be not random in the protein: namely these superposition properties draw along the succession of those frequencies to be musical.”
When these frequencies are transposed down 76 octaves into a range audible to humans, they become melodies: “These frequencies are musical [pointing onto the amino-acids of the sequence written on board], here is an A, here an E, and here again an A an octave higher; and if one looks at the succession of the frequencies and enters it into the memory of a synthesizer [or sampler], one gets a melody.”
These molecular frequencies trigger protein synthesis: “These melodies are not just a kind of molecular amusement, so to speak: they sign up the function of the protein. The proteins which share similar melodies will find themselves homologous in a metabolic chain. They will stimulate each other like those.”
Biological organisms respond to the DNA sound of protein sequences: “When we listen to the melody of a protein transposed, when we listen to it acoustically, a resonance phenomenon occurs, which is a scale resonance, and will stimulate (or inhibit in case of phase opposition) the corresponding protein synthesis”
The following year, in May 1994, New Scientist magazine published an article that translated Sternheimer’s research on tomatoes that highlighted the positive impact of protein music on plant growth.
Musical DNA Software and the Shepard Helix
If we move beyond science, we'll find other attempts to bring the model of the DNA helix down into the realm of music theory. During the mid-20th century, RN Shepard presented a model called the Pitch Helix that depicted the ordinary twelve note chromatic wheel extended vertically to cover multiple octaves.
Shepard was interested in the idea of recursion, where the high notes would eventually blend with the lowest notes, so that you could create an infinite loop, similar to the repeating staircases of M.C. Escher.
Decades later, software company Musical DNA released a MIDI visualization app that focused on the rise and descent through octaves. The app allowed users to plug in a MIDI keyboard, perform musical notes and watch the intervals highlighted as colorful bars, resembling the rungs of a DNA ladder.
A demonstration of the Musical DNA Software was provided at the top of this article. Their app does not seem to be actively maintained and may have been deprecated in 2017.
A separate company called SonicCharge developed a MIDI plugins called Synplant, exploring a similar concept of the chromatic wheel and DNA helix. Synplant focuses on sound entirely on design, where each rung of the ladder represents a single property of the sound that you're editing
If you've enjoyed this topic, we published a separate article on plant music that you can visit for a closer look at software like this.