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Thursday, November 26, 1998 Published at 17:56 GMT


Listen to your DNA

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Advances in the science of biotechnology are breathtaking. We have the ability to read the information encoded in DNA, the blueprint of life, and can even manipulate the building blocks of life themselves.

Listen to the sound of DNA
But as science advances there are some that take a different view of this progress, regarding it not with the eye of a scientist but from the viewpoint of an artist.

Susan Alexjander holds an MA in music, which she teaches in Sacramento, California. Her compositions are fusing science and art, producing music that is a collaboration between her and DNA itself.

"Sound and the body interested me," she says, "so did maths, physics and their relationship with sound. Because of this, I started collecting frequencies in nature."

Melodic atoms

She asked if the movements of the atoms and molecules that make up our DNA could be recorded and heard. If so, what would they sound like? Random noise? Melodic?

Susan Alexjander: The music sounds alive
She wanted to measure the actual molecular vibrations of DNA. So she approached University of California biologist Dr David Deamer and discovered it was actually quite easy to do.

The vibrations were easily measurable using an infrared spectrophotometer. By exposing each section of DNA to infrared light and measuring the wavelength of the light absorbed, it was possible to determine distinctive frequencies for each DNA molecule.

But how to turn them into music?

"I wanted to go inside the chemistry and hear the frequencies. I did the science with Dr David Deamer and then the artist's hat went on."

Frequency combination

The ratios of the light frequencies were converted into ratios of sound. The relative relationship between light frequencies was kept. The result was strange, beautiful music.

Susan Alexjander: Some people have a deep reaction to the music
"Some of the combinations of frequencies," Alexjander adds, "are just stunning. I find it very arresting. It sounds alive to me."

Most of the changes of pitches in her DNA music are microtonal - that is, their frequencies occur in the area between the half-tone steps of the western musical scale.

Microtonal pitches are nothing new in music, however. Some cultures have a long history of their use, especially those of India and the Middle and Far East.

These sounds from the molecular world are remarkable. They may mean something - they may mean nothing.

Alexjander says her music produces a strong reaction. She speculates: "Perhaps on a very deep level the body recognises itself - hears something familiar in the music. It's a theory. I don't know."

Listen for yourself.

The music is available on CD from Science and the Arts, PO Box 428, Aptos, California 95010, USA

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