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Double Helix

a computer-generated composition

by Reginald Bain

DNA image; Credit:Pixabay.com Double Helix (2019) is a computer-generated composition that utilizes genetic data as source material. Biological and musical data may both be viewed as a sequence. This creates a common ground where two usually distinct domains may meet. In this work, composer and machine collaborate in an exploration of a seemingly infinite space of musical possibilities. Using Ableton Live and Cycling '74's Max, a graphical music programing environment, a DNA sequence and corresponding amino acid sequence are strategically mapped in real time to changing musical parameters including pitch, intensity, duration, timbre, and spatialization.

In the pre-compositional phase of the work's creation, the genetic data is mapped to musical parameters in myriad ways until aesthetically viable mapping strategies are discovered. Computer algorithms are then programmed in Max to implement particular musical processes. The algorithms are run repeatedly until desirable motifs emerge. Along the way, the composer-programmer is constantly working to refine the mapping in order to shape the surface, and control the macro-level and micro-level details of the data-driven music's structure.

Inspired by the music of Steve Reich and other early American minimalist composers who experimented with technology, the composer adopts a process-oriented approach. The composer also invokes broader musico-genetic themes, including the exceptionally beautiful metaphorical-mathematical bridge connecting the double-helical model of DNA (Watson and Crick 1953) and the helical model of pitch space used by music theorists today (Shepard 1982).

The genetic data used in this composition is from the human gene CHD8 (chromodomain helicase DNA binding protein 8) which has been identified as a leading candidate gene for autism risk. The data was obtained from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

I. Major Groove 6:15
II. Biological Clocks
III. Seed 3:36
IV. Minor Groove 3:15
D U R A T I O N: 18:25

The world premiere of Double Helix was given at the USC Computer Music Concert, School of Music, Recital Hall (Columbia, SC) on April 8, 2019.

ICAD 2021 Sonification Concert

The third movement "Seed" was performed at the 2021 International Conference on Auditory Display (ICAD) Sonification Concert on June 26, 2021. The Sonification Concert program is available online at: https://icad2021.icad.org/program/, and the accompanying paper (Bain 2021) is available in the conference proceedings. A recording of the virtual performance is available on YouTube.
ICAD 2021 Sonification Concert
June 26, 2021

Duration: 3:36


Ableton Live, https://www.ableton.com

Cyling '74, Max, https://cycling74.com

NCBI, CHD8 chromodomain helicase DNA binding protein 8, Homo sapiens (human), NP_065971.2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/gene/57680


Bain, Reginald. 2021. "Seed," from Double Helix." Proceedings of the 26th International Conference of Auditory Display (ICAD 2021): 288-291. {SMARTech}

Shepard, Roger N. 1982. "Geometrical Approximations to the Structure of Musical Pitch." Psychological Review 89/4 (July 1982): 305333. {APA PsycNET}

Watson, J. D. and Crick, F. H. C. 1953. "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid." Nature 171 (April 25, 1953): 737738.

This composition was created for the Mutational Music Project, the broader impact component of the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant project Mutational variance of the transcriptome and the origins of phenotypic plasticity (NSF award #1556645). Jeff Dudycha is the principal investigator and Reginald Bain is the other senior person on the grant.
NSF logo

Updated: November 14, 2022