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Classical 101

How One Young Composer Turned a Deadly Virus Into Beautiful Music

It may sound a little disturbing at first: music made from a deadly virus. But for composer Alexandra Pajak raw genetic material served as the inspiration for a new instrumental work, Sounds of HIV (recorded by the Sequence Ensemble for Azica Records). Pajak made her first attempt at creating DNA based music for a genetics professor when she was an undergraduate music major at Agnes Scott College. The professor asked her to create a symphony based on the DNA of Agnes Scott (the mother of the college's founder) to commemorate the opening of a new science building. Now a graduate student in clinical social work at the University of Georgia, Pajak got to know people in the AIDS community through her social work and thought making music based on the genetic material that makes up the HIV virus would be an interesting way to combine her two interests (music and social work) while also raising money for the cause.

Making of A Genomic Symphony

To make the music, Pajak took the National Institute of Health's record of the HIV genome - thousands of coded letters - and she transcribed them note-by-note on her keyboard. The nucleotides and amino acids that make up the virus became musical pitches to which Pajak added her own harmonies and rhythms. She matched the nucleotides guanine, adenine, and cytocine (represented as G, A, C in nucleic acid notation) to their literal musical pitch equivalents (G, A, and C on the musical staff), but took some creative musical license when it came to thymine. Since there is no pitch "T" to match, Pajak assigned "D" to represent thymine, because she says, it formed “two perfect fifths on the music staff (C-G and D-A).â€? As for the amino acids, Pajak assigned pitches “based on the extent to which each amino acid molecule is attracted to, versus repulsed by, water molecules." She used the A-minor scale as the basis for the piece since "A" is the first letter of the alphabet ("just to keep it simple," she says), and chose a minor scale "since it would sound “sadderâ€? to Western listeners," because,  she explains, "I find the HIV virus to obviously be a sad aspect of human life." You can listen to samples of all 17 tracks from Sounds of HIV on Amazon.com. Proceeds from sales of the album go to the Emory Vaccine Center.