press release
Published: 06 May 2020

Listening for Covid-19 clues - Understanding coronavirus through musical transformations

A novel collaboration between music and genetics has set the ‘code’ of the Covid-19 virus to music, with the objective of assisting in the identification of anomalies and other clues that could help scientists more quickly unlock solutions to the greatest challenge facing modern science.

Credit: Enzo De Sena
The soundwaves of a virus

Dr Enzo De Sena and Dr Milton Mermikides at the University of Surrey have set up the Covid-19 Listening Project, which is dedicated to the sonic and musical representation of Covid-19 data. A 42-minute choral piece and a genomic-spatial realisation have already been produced and it is hoped this will help experts learn more about the virus.

In consultation with a network of geneticists including Gemma Bruno (Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine, Italy), programming and music technology resources have been employed in the communication of relevant genetic patterns in the disease. Data including the structure of the Covid-19 genome, the points of mutation within it, protein coding, the comparative genetics in the phylogenetic tree of Covid-19 samples and their geographical distribution, were translated into pitch, rhythms and harmonies, to create rich and compelling communicative works.

Multi-modal representations of data like the ones produced through this project are increasingly popular in assisting scientific researchers to filter the conceptual and scientific knowledge required to make breakthroughs in their work.

Dr Mermikides, Reader in Music and Music MMus Masters course Programme Director, said: “While visual graphs are an entirely normalised form of conceptual and scientific communication, our listening and musical faculties are highly sophisticated and underused tools which can, in fact, provide a more nuanced and impactful data representation.

Throughout this project, our aim has been to respect the data and provide the most sensible and well-informed translation methods to communicate, rather than obscure this nuanced data. I have been working on translating data into music since 2004 in a wide range of disciplines, but it is really coming of age now with leading research institutions such as MIT and Stanford adopting similar approaches.”

Dr De Sena, Lecturer in Audio, said: “At this time, clear communication is vital, and our aim is to communicate Covid-19 though the medium of sound and music making it easier to interpret for both researchers and the general public. We hope that by interpreting the virus, experts will move one step closer to beating it.”

Read more about the Covid 19 Listening Project, listen to the full choral piece, or view the YouTube video to find out more.

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