The biology of music and the music of biology

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PROTEIN SYMPHONY: Some proteins were set to music in the western classical music system.
PROTEIN SYMPHONY: Some proteins were set to music in the western classical music system.

Human music may have a biological basis

LISTEN TO music from China or Japan and you recognise the five-note scales akin to our Raga Mohanam (or Bhupali) and Suddha Saveri (or Durga). Listen to the medieval chorals of Europe, the Gregorian Chants, and you recognise Kalyani (or Yaman). Indeed, in an album called `sources,' the French Gregorian singer Dominique Vellard and the Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, he chants a piece remarkably similar to Kalyani which impels Aruna to elaborate the raga in traditional Indian style.

Pleasing result

The result is pleasing and unifying. Even if different in style, European music of the Baroque period (Palestrina, Bach, Telemann, Haydn) is appealing to the Indian classical ear. True, even with the basic octave, there are cultural and subcultural variations. The sacel is `tempered' in some and not in some others. The frequency of the basic starting note or swara is fixed in some and not in others. The division within the octave is also defined in the various systems. Some notes are modulated as natural and flat, while others are as natural and sharp. But regardless of these variations, is it not interesting that all music across the world is based on the octave?It is this common basis that has led some biologists to state that human music is not just a cultural adaptation, but may have a biological basis. This idea has been strengthened by the discovery of six 9000-year-old flutes from China and a 50,000-year-old flute from a Neanderthal settlement in Europe. They all have holes in them that correspond to the octave. You can access them on Google and hear them played by music scholars. These have led researchers to talk of the biology of music. Turning the phrase on its head, some scientists have looked at biological molecules and set them to music. We thus speak now of the music of biology!

An early attempt

One of the early attempts was the collaboration between the biologist David Deamer and the musician Susan Alexjander; they realised that the four building blocks, or monomers (call them A, G, C and T), that are strung together in a polymeric chain to make the DNA molecule can be translated into music. They gave the monomer A the musical value of the note A, monomer G the value G, C the value C and the value E for the monomer T. As we read the sequence of the DNA chain, then it becomes a string of four musical notes. Our genes are then read out as a four-note musical sequence. (Listen to an example of DNA music on Then came the Japanese biologist Susumo Ohno, who decided that this four-note music was inadequate, and gave two musical values to each of the four DNA monomers, thus expanding the musical scope. When the DNA sequence of mouse immunoglobulin chain is played using the Ohno method, it sounds remarkably like that of a romantic composer (hear it at MusicDNA.html). Even since I heard these DNA musical pieces, I had been wondering how nice it would be to set proteins to music. While DNA (and its cousin RNA) chains are made just of four repeating monomers, proteins are chains that are made up of twenty different monomers, namely the amino acids. This immediately offers a much greater variety, musically speaking. While there have been earlier attempts by scientists to do so, these have not been as pleasing (at least to me) as DNA music. My idea has been to set proteins to music in the Indian classical system. While Hindustani music uses 12 semitones of the octave, Carnatic music uses almost 22 microtones or srutis, and might be more suitable.Armed with this idea, and not knowing enough music, I have approached three well-known musicians across India, but have not succeeded in interesting them in this crazy-sounding project. Imagine my consternation on one hand and admiration on the other upon reading a very recent paper by Drs. Rie Takahashi and Jeffrey Miller of UCLA, Los Angeles, U.S., in the journal Genome Biology (2007; 8:405). They have done a very similar thing, giving each of the 20 amino acids a specific note, covering two octaves, and set some proteins to music in the western classical music system. This is a vast improvement over previous attempts on protein music. First, they attempted giving each amino acid a definite note on the scale (tryptophan the note C, methionine the note D and so on). But the problem was the jump between consecutive notes as a consequence of the 20-note range. The wide range resulted in melodies with large sporadic jumps.

Solving the problem

To solve this problem, they decided to introduce chords; a three note chord was adopted starting with the octave below middle C. They made pairs of similar amino acids, giving one of them the root position and the other the first inversion chord. (Note this is easier done in Western music than in ours). This ingenious systematics provided them with a more continuous and acceptable tune, with appropriate rhythm. This protein music can be heard on the website named gene2music ( At this site they also offer a computer program to convert your protein of choice into music. Am I scooped? Hopefully not, since the Indian musical system is yet to be explored. And I am hoping to find a willing musical master with interest and/or expertise in science.

The natural choice

Now that DNA and proteins are set to music, what other polymers are left in the biological world? The natural choice is sugar chains or polysaccharides. But one shudders to even think of the complexity they pose. Not only are there many more types of sugar monomers (glucose, galactose, mannose, fructose... ), but each one of them has multiple functional groups or arms (not just two as in DNA, RNA or proteins). When someone sets them into music (glycomusic), will we hear the Baroquesque over-ornamentation or just cacophony? D. BALASUBRAMANIAN



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