How two groups of scientists coax music from nature

The score of “Stellar Music No. 1.” Time is on the horizontal axis, and frequency (Hz) is on the vertical axis. Each color represents a different stellar instrument. Courtesy of Zoltán Kolláth and Jenő Keuler

From Led Zeppelin to Wolf Parade, rock music owes a debt to science—and to the scientists whose fascination with sound art spurred them to create new noises. A Russian physicist named Leon Theremin developed the world’s first electronic musical instrument: a box with antennae (appropriately called a “theremin”) that used electric circuits to create a range of otherworldly sounds. Four decades later, in 1964, an engineering physics Ph.D. named Robert Moog invented the synthesizer that bears his name. Now, a new generation of scientists and musicians continue to push the frontiers of musical possibility.

Since 2003, Hungarian astrophysicist Zoltán Kolláth and composer Jenő Keuler have been working on what they call the “Stellar Music Project,” using pulse patterns generated by stars to compose musical pieces.

“The main goal of the project is to build a bridge between science and art, particularly between astrophysics and music,” said Kolláth, a researcher at the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, via email.

Some stars undergo a natural process that generates acoustic waves similar to those produced by wind instruments. The gas inside the star contracts and expands, which leads to a heating and cooling cycle. This periodic change in temperature alters the star’s light intensity, and astronomers can detect the resulting pulse patterns with telescopes. Kolláth and Keuler use this data as a basis for their music, but after one critical adjustment: Since the frequencies of star sounds are much too low for humans to hear, the team uses a computer program to shift the pitches by as many as 30 octaves—over four times the difference between the highest and lowest notes on a piano. So essentially, stars produce sound waves that appear visually as patterns of light, which are then translated into music.

Sounds produced by modern musical instruments—guitars, for example—consist of multiple tones arranged in specific ratios, and these amalgamations give each instrument its distinct musical character. But the tones from stars don’t have any of these familiar ratios, Kolláth said, so virtual musical instruments based on stars have a unique, unusual sound. The result is musical compositions that are appropriately alien and eerie-sounding.

“Aesthetically, they provide a new challenge,” Kolláth said.

While Kolláth and Keuler tune in to the cosmic world, Texas Wesleyan University biologist Mary Anne Clark and algorithmic artist John Dunn are working at the molecular scale, using protein and gene sequence data from humans and other species as the basis for their songs. In 1998, they came out with an audio CD titled “Life Music,” a collection of pieces based on data from a variety of proteins.

About 20 years ago, when scientists first started to analyze the genes for proteins, researchers found that they were broken up according to patterns, Clark said. “So a particular chunk of a gene would encode a particular protein motif, and that was what first brought the idea of comparing it to music to my mind.”

Clark sought a way to translate a protein’s amino acid sequences and the genes that encode them into musical sequences and found her answer in a computer program developed by Dunn. The software allows Clark to choose pitches and instrumentation according to specific characteristics of her dataset—for example, she might choose to use timpani every time the amino acid cysteine occurs in the protein sequence.

“I want it to sound nice, but the important thing is that the sequence itself not be obscured in the composition,” Clark said.

Clark, who has been a singer since high school, said it is possible to hear patterns in a protein’s structure—the amino acid sequence is fairly repetitive—and she focuses on bringing those patterns out. Listening to these compositions has helped her learn about the distinct ways proteins are structured and folded in different animal species, she said.
For Dunn, the music is useful for better understanding music theory, specifically how patterns and repetition work in a composition.

“My philosophical interest was looking for the kind of deep structure in music that makes music stay interesting,” he said.

Unlike the more organic, freeform sounds produced by Kolláth and Keuler, some of the music composed from protein data can have surprisingly familiar structures. For example, Clark and Dunn’s piece based off alcohol dehydrogenase—the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the human body—has a rowdy, jig-like rhythm, like “something that you might hear at an Irish bar,” Clark said. She added that such occurrences are purely coincidental.   

These fusions between science and music, which started as hobbies for their creators, also reflect a close relationship that has long been in existence. It is well known that human arts have always drawn inspiration from the natural world, said Keuler, who taught composition for more than 30 years.

Warren Burt, a composer at Australia’s University of Wollongong, who has also used Dunn’s program, agrees. We live in an environment that is saturated with scientific information, he said, and musicians have always been interested in the latest developments. This goes as far back as Ancient Greece, when the astronomer Ptolemy wrote Harmonics, the “definitive music theory book,” and the time of Ludwig van Beethoven, who mingled with engineers to see what scientific developments could offer him in terms of musical possibilities, Burt said.

“Interesting musicians have always been interested in what’s happening at the edges of science and technology,” Burt said.

Both teams continue to create their unique brands of music, although neither is completely sure how marketable their compositions are. Kolláth has presented his compositions on Hungarian television and at a fine arts exhibition in summer 2006. Dunn says they’re still selling copies of the self-released “Life Music” album.  Customers are mostly educators, and many are from Europe. There’s also a fair amount of interest from people who enjoy alternative and dance music, said Dunn, who added that he’s also been told the songs would make good rave music.

“I think it’s an expanding field,” Burt said. “It’s only going to get bigger and bigger. People are going to become more interested in exploring the world around them with their ears as well as their eyes.”

Originally published December 6, 2006

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