Genetic Music: An Annotated Source List
M. A. Clark, Texas Wesleyan University (

Transcriptions Home Page

In his landmark book Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter comments on similarities between genes and music. The analogy is explicit in the following quote (Vintage Books Edition, 1980, p. 519).

  • 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.

Hofstadter also discusses how meaning is constructed in protein and in music (p. 525):

  • Music is not a mere linear sequence of notes. Our minds perceive pieces of music on a level far higher than that. We chunk notes into phrases, phrases into melodies, melodies into movements, and movements into full pieces. similarly proteins only make sense when they act as chunked units. Although a primary structure carries all the information for the tertiary structure to be created, it still "feels" like less, for its potential is only realized when the tertiary structure is actually physically created.

The individuals and teams described below have taken advantage of the multiple biochemical and biophysical properties of both DNA and proteins to make the genetic patterns of these macromolecules audible. As Hofstadter first suggested, music is a natural medium for expressing the complex patterns of proteins and their encoding DNAs. Both consist of a linear sequence of elements whose real meaning lies in their combinations.

Hayashi and Munakata , using a system that assigned pitches to the four DNA bases according to their thermal stability within the interval of a fifth, found that converting the DNA sequences to music helped to expose the meaning of specific sequences and made remembering and recognizing specific DNA patterns easier. Dr. Munakata has continued to explore music as way of understanding gene and protein sequences. A more detailed exposition of his ideas and samples of his musical translations of DNA and protein sequences can be found at his beautiful web site at:

  • (Kenshi Hayashi and Nobuo Munakata. Basically musical. Nature 310 (12 July 1984): 96.)

Susumo Ohno, whose research explores the origin of life, proposed that the meaning of proteins and of music springs from a similar origin -- the repetition and elaboration of thematic sequences. In his 1986 paper

  • Susumo Ohno and Midori Ohno. The all prevasive principle of repetitious recurrence governs not only coding sequence construction but also human endeavor in musical composition. Immunogenetics 24: 71-78. 1986.

Ohno discusses the evidence that variations of two small primordial sequences -- the decamer AAGGCTGCTG (=the peptide KAA) and a smaller derivative AAGCTG (=KL) are reiterated again and again as primary themes in the sequences of genes, where they alternate with secondary themes composed of other sequences. To make the "repetitious recurrence" of these themes more vivid, Ohno developed a system of rules, based on the molecular weights of DNA's four bases, to convert the four bases into an octave scale. The system was used to produce a piece scored for violin: Human X-linked phosphoglycerate kinase. He also back-translated a Chopin nocturne into a DNA sequence that contains a remarkable 160-codon open reading frame. Curiously this sequence proved to be strikingly similar to the musical translation of the last exon of the gene for mouse RNA polymerase II.

In a later paper, Ohno explored another type of structure common to both music and protein sequences: the palindrome.

  • Susumo Ohno. A song in praise of peptide palindromes. Leukemia 7 (Supplement 2, August 1993): S157-9.

In this paper, Ohno described the structure of mouse Histone H1, in which he found palindromic peptide sequences, some overlapping others, occupying 115 of the protein's 212 amino acids. The longest of these palindromes was the 15-residue sequence: KAVKPKAAKPKVAK. Using both the sequence of the functional protein, and that of the "antisense protein" translated from the complementary strand of DNA, Ohno converted the Histone H1 sequence to music, using his previous developed pitch assignment rules, setting it as a piece that could be played either on piano or as an instrumental duet.

Obituary:  Susumo Ohno
Susumo Ohno died January 17, 2000.  

David Deamer, another origin-of-life researcher, has also been intrigued by the musical properties of DNA. With composer Riley McLaughlin, he has produced two tapes (DNA Suite and DNA Meditations)of DNA music. Article by Deamer from Omni Magazine. Composer Susan Alexjander and Deamer have also collaborated on the work Sequencia. Ms. Alexjander describes this work in her essay

In Sequencia, pitches are assigned according to the light absorption spectra of the four bases ; the music uses a combination of synthesized tones and live instruments.

All of the works above can be obtained from Susan Alexjander's Web Site or from the address below:

  • Science & The Arts
    PO Box 428
    Aptos, CA 95003

Artist and programmer John Dunn (Algorithmic Arts) began creating and performing DNA-based music and developing genetic music software in 1989, first in collaboration with botanist K.W.Bridges and currently with biologist M. A. Clark. Dunn's software uses both frequency tables and amino acid characteristics (molecular weight, molecular volume and biochemical category) to assign pitch and other musical parameters to sequence data. Samples of this music can be heard at the following web sites.

My own (M. A. Clark) interest in using music to represent genetic patterns is both aesthetic and pedagogical. The collaboration with John Dunn, resulting in the Life Music CD described on this web site, began while I was teaching an honors course (Canons, Codons, and Creativity, Marshall University, Spring 1996) on parallel patterns in genes and music.

Our goal for the Life Music CD was not only to represent the primary sequences of proteins, but the secondary folding patterns as well. Since alpha-helix, beta strands and turns each have characteristic combinations of hydrophobic and hydrophilic amino acids, different structural categories of proteins, which combine these secondary elements in different ways, also have different musical characteristics. The proteins we selected for the CD represent different protein folding patterns.

Another artist/scientist composing team is artist Peter Gena and medical geneticist Charles Strom, who presented their work demonstrating the translation of DNA sequences into music at the Sixth Symposium on Electronic Arts.Gena and Strom use a sophisticated algorithm for converting the DNA sequences to music. Pitch is determined by a combination of the base composition of the codons and the dissociation constant of the amino acid encoded. Tone intensity is determined by the number of hydrogen bonds between base pairs, and duration of the tone by a combination of the dissociation constants and atomic weights of the amino acids. The amino acids encoded by each codon were also separated into eight chemical categories, with different instrumental timbres assigned to each. Thus nearly all musical elements of their pieces are determined directly by the codon sequence. Gena and Strom discuss their music in the sources listed below.

Biologist Ross King and musician Colin Angus have collaborated to produce the piece S2 Translation, recorded on The Shamen's CD Axis Mutatis. The algorithm used in their software PM is described in the article below. Ross King has recently updated the program described in the article and a free java version can be downloaded from

  • Ross King and Colin Angus. PM - Protein music. Computer applications in the Biosciences 12, 251-252. 1996.

In S2 Translation, the DNA coding sequence for the S2 protein (a membrane receptor for the neurotransmitter serotonin) was converted to music that plays out both the DNA sequence and the sequence of the encoded protein. They assigned the notes C, A, G and E to the bases cytosine, adenine, guanine and thymine (an interesting musical irony that recalls composer John Cage's assertion that music can be extracted from all the sounds around us). Under this melodic line, the bass progressions are structured to reflect the characteristics of the encoded amino acids, including their water-solubility, charge, and size. Higher-order structure of the protein is suggested by changes in tonality.

Musical renditions of DNA and proteins are not only interesting as music, but as an alternative mode of studying genetic sequences. It might be argued that the folding patterns (tertiary structure) of proteins are the most conserved elements of living organisms.  The genes and the primary protein structure (amino acid sequence) that underlie the protein folds and the diversity of the species that house them seem to be free to vary, so long as the protein continues to fold in a way that allows it to serve its function.  Protein folding depends on the interaction among the amino acids and between the protein and its immediate environment.  With a few exceptions, the specific identity of the amino acids seems less important than the preservation of the correct relationship.  I believe that music is a way of representing those relationships in a type of informational string to which the human ear is keenly attuned.

The rapid expansion of genetic data bases driven in part by the Human Genome Project has made it clear just how much all life forms have in common. Similar genetic themes appear not only from species to species, but from protein to protein. Every genome is a study in the history of genetic composition.  It may be possible for somebody who has heard the pattern of a calcium-binding site or an enzyme active site to recognize its occurrence in a novel protein.  The analytic and educational potential of using music to represent genetic patterns has been recognized from secondary school to university level. For example:

Carol Miner and Paula Della Villa have developed a high-school learning project in which students create computer music from DNA sequences. Their project is described in their article

David Lane, the founder of AudioGenetics, has built a DNA-based music company on the foundation of a project he began as a student at the University of Arizona. This ambitious enterprise planned to develop many potential applications of DNA-based music to education, analysis and medicine. Lane's compositions are marketed under the label GenSong.

Ronald Rusay, whose work can be seen at the is interested in the ability of humans to discriminate between melodies generated from the sequences of mutant and normal proteins or between the equivalent proteins of different species.  He describes his work in the paper below:

  • Musical Representations of the Fibonacci String and Proteins Using Mathematica.   Erik Jensen, Ronald J. Rusay, Abstract, Paper, International Mathematica Symposium (IMS 99), Hagenburg, Austria  (August, 1999)

Linda Long, biochemist and musician, generates sequences using the X-ray diffraction coordinates to determine pitch and amplitude. The sequences are adjusted to reflect regions of secondary structure: arpeggios for alpha helix and reduced intervalic distances for beta sheets. Samples of Dr. Long's music can be heard at her web site: Molecular Music.

Aurora Sanchez Sousa, microbiologist at the Hospital Ramon y Cajal in Madrid, has collaborated with musician Richard Krull to produce their CD, Genoma Music, based on the DNA sequences of various genes of the yeast Candida albicans and other organisms. A discussion and samples of Dr. Sousa's work can be found at her web site: Genoma Music.

Writer and musician David Lindsay's work in genetic music, which grew directly out of an attempt to copyright his own DNA, is characterized by an emphasis on replication and rhythm. David Lindsay is the author of four books, including The Patent Files (which includes a chapter on his exploration of DNA) and co-founder of musical groups They Might Be Giants and the Klezmatics.

With the increase in public awareness of DNA following on the publication of the sequence of the human genome, other composers have also begun to explore DNA sequences as a source of musical pattern:

Brent D. Hugh uses DNA sequences to generate minimalist music from several DNA sequences played simultaneously in different layered voices. An article on Brent Hugh's music can be seen here.

Todd Barton, a composer and also director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has recently become interested in the musical potential of DNA patterns. His web site includes links to several articles and interviews describing his work, as well as links to samples the music itself.

Henry Alan Hargrove has produced a musical sampling of sequences representing each of the human chromosomes. In this diverse set of pieces, the DNA sequence is used as a template for ordering a sequence of musical phrases, each of which represents one of the four DNA bases. Samples of the music and a discussion of his work can be seen at Hargrove's DNA Music Central web site at: (NOTE: this web site seems to have become inactive, and I have been unable to locate another site related to Mr. Hargrove's work.)

Larry Lang has produced a piece based on the sequence of oxytocin: Oxy Fugue 9. The piece was produced during his wife's pregnancy. A discussion and sound file of this music can be found here.

Alexandra Pajak, a music student at Agnes Scott University, has recently completed the composition of a symphonic piece based on the NADH dehydrogenase 5 gene of the mitochondrial DNA of Agnes Scott. Alexandra's piece was played for the opening of a new science center at Agnes Scott. Click here for a news story on Alexandra's work.

Herb Moore has created a suite of pieces based on the enzyme acid sphingomyelinase (ASM). Mutations in the gene result in the genetic disorder Niemann-Pick disease. Moore selected this gene because friends of his have a child suffering from this disorder. Samples of his music can be heard at his web site at

Jonathan Middleton, who teaches Theory and Composition at Eastern Washington University, has developed interactive online software that produces music from a variety of data sources, including DNA sequences. Visit Dr. Middleton's faculty web page to hear samples of his compositions, and create a piece of your own, using his DNA music software to generate music from a DNA sequence you enter. Dr. Middleton's program will also produce a sheet music printout of your piece!

L.Y. Han and Y.Z. Chen, who work in bioinformatics and protein structure preduction, have also developed a online Protein Music (PROM) composition software that will allow you to hear the musical output from a protein sequence that you paste in. Visit their web site to hear samples of their own compositions as well.

New Entry: Rie Takahashi and Jeffrey Miller, at UCLA, are a welcome new addition to the protein music community, and have introduced several new strategies for expressing different amino acid features. For example, amino acids with similar solubilities are assigned chords with the same root but different inversions. Read the article about their work in Genome Science and visit their web site at

For other links to algorithmic music sites, see the LINKS at Algorithmic Arts.   For another page of links to DNA and protein-related music, see Wentian Li's DNA and Protein Music page.
If you know of other resources for genetic music, have produced genetic music yourself, or would like to suggest other additions or corrections to this page, please E-mail me:

Original commentary © M. A. Clark
Please cite this page if you reproduce any of the information elsewhere.

Updated November 2, 2005