If Covid-19 is a melody, there must be a counterpoint

The Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra makes the first recording of "Protein Antibody" on March 7 at a studio in Seoul. [LINDENBAUM]

When a team of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) headed by professor Markus Buehler turned the coronavirus into an hour-and-fifty-minute piece of music last April, their goal wasn't artistic.

By giving this lethal virus a melody, Buehler’s team believed they could use artificial intelligence (AI) to try to find a protein antibody that is its counterpoint .

Buehler’s team finally managed to come up with the music for the coronavirus’ antibody and sent the score to Korea’s Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra to world premiere it.

According to Buehler, the proteins that make up all living things -- including viruses -- are alive with music in their structures, and that “we can use artificial intelligence models to design new proteins, sometimes by translating them into sound.”

By assigning each amino acid – the building blocks of proteins – a unique note, and then making algorithms to convert these notes into music, Buehler’s team was able to create a musical composition from the coronavirus entitled "Viral Counterpoint of the Coronavirus Spike Protein."

Buehler has been designing new proteins with the help of AI at MIT for many years. His playlist on SoundCloud includes tracks that could be filed under very uneasy listening, like the “Orchestra of Amino Acids,” and “Concert of Enzyme Lysozyme” to more musical tunes like “Honeybee Silk” and “Reflection of Infection.”

When Covid-19 spread around the world, Buehler said he began translating the spike proteins of the coronavirus into sounds to understand its vibrational properties, which could help scientists design antibodies to stop the virus.

“Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and design proteins,” Buehler said in an interview with MIT News last April. “Even a small mutation can limit or enhance the pathogenic power of [the virus].

"Through sonification, we can also compare the biochemical processes of its spike protein with previous coronaviruses, like SARS or MERS.”

Music score of "Protein Antibody - Piano and Strings (E minor). [LINDENBAUM]
First part of the music score of "Viral Counterpoint of the Coronavirus Spike Protein for solo violin," which violinist Won Hyung-joon performed last year. [LINDENBAUM]

The Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra, which is a project orchestra organized by violinist Won Hyung-jun, finished the recording of “Protein Antibody,” which is four minutes and 30 seconds, on March 7. Won plans to release the audio file through various social media channels within this week.

Won established the Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra in 2009 in the hopes of bringing together South and North Korea through music. When the coronavirus hit, Won visited isolation wards holding coronavirus patients and played classical music pieces on his violin to give patients and medical workers a sense of peace through music.

“I got introduced to Professor Buehler last summer while I was trying to help those suffering from the coronavirus through music,” said Won. “He gave me the score of ‘Viral Counterpoint of the Coronavirus Spike Protein for solo violin’ so I performed it.”

When Buehler completed a first version of “Protein Antibody” about three months ago, he gave it to Won to world premiere.

The piece has only 64 bars and it’s “definitely not an easy piece to play,” said Won.

Won rearranged the piece to make it easier on the ear and included more musical instruments like the cello, double bass, alto saxophone and a vocal.

“The original piece was for the piano and violin so we rearranged it to include more musical instruments and also added a vocal part that hums a tune without lyrics,” said Won. “That’s because in the score, there’s this sad tune that’s very human-like. No musical instrument can express that in a way that a human voice can."

The antibody piece, compared to its coronavirus counterpoint, according to Won, is “very rhythmic. There’s vitality and constant changes in the rhythm like variation pieces.”

“I want to express my respect and fascination with the researchers who have created this music,” said Won.

“Through our performance, we hope people can not only find peace but also encourage scientists," he said, "who are working hard to design a novel protein antibody that can help stop the virus based on this antibody music.”