S2 Translation: An Early Work of Protein Music

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One of my hobbies is musical archaeology: sifting through the archives in search of obscure, overlooked tracks from a bygone era. This virtual crate digging occasionally turns up intriguing results, including one recent find by The Shamen, a popular late 1980s/early 1990s electronica act unjustly known for some rather cheesy hit songs. Unbeknownst to me, they burst their own hype bubble at some point and started pursuing more serious musical explorations, most of which seem to have been completely overlooked and disregarded (as their fans were expecting more radio-friendly garbage and almost everyone else had already written them off).

Anyway, in 1995 they put out an album, Axis Mutatis, that included a number of interesting works, among them this piece of DNA/protein music, in which an actual protein-coding sequence is MIDI mapped to synthesizers to produce the sounds you hear.

The description by frontman Colin Angus gives more context:

The track ‘S2 Translation’ was generated from the DNA sequence and the amino acid characteristics of the S2 protein. The time signature of the piece is given by the codon: 3 base pairs per codon gives one codon per bar, hence the time signature is 3/4 or waltz time. The ‘top line melody’ comes directly from the base pair sequence itself (the bases cystosine, adenine, guanine and thymidine being mapped to the notes C, A G and E respectively) while progressions in the bass are reflective of the characteristics of the amino acids which are the result of translation. The number and nature of bass notes per codon/bar were determined by the hydrophobicity/hydrophilicity, ionic charge (positive or negative) and size of each amino acid residue (Proline, for example, which has no characteristics other than its small size, can be identified easily as the bars where the bass line ‘drops out’). The musical output resulting from these rules was further processed by mapping the notes onto different tonalities, both to make the piece more interesting, and to suggest the organisation of the protein molecule into regions of different secondary structure (although since S2 is a membrane protein and thus impossible to crystallise outside the lipid bilayer, this was definitely creative licence).

S2 is the receptor protein for 5-hydroxy tryptamine (Serotonin) and presumably for other tryptamines as well. It is thus one of the most important molecules in the mediation of both ordinary and non-ordinary (or “Shamanic”) states of consciousness, which is why the molecule was chosen for this piece.

Colin Angus

Also of interest: ProteinMusic, the Java-based software used in the production of this song, might be available from the preceding link. The New York Times has more about it in case you’re curious.