What does the coronavirus sound like?

A scientist in Sydney turned the coronavirus genome into a musical masterpiece

January 21, 2021
A drawing from the United Nations, showing musicians on balconies.
During the pandemic, confined to homes and small apartments, some people rekindled old interests; they started working on a book, or learned an instrument. A cancer researcher in Sydney, Australia used his background in music to create compelling sounds from the coronavirus genome. [Credit: Unsplash, United Nations]

In the 1980s, Mark Temple was the drummer for the indie pop band The Hummingbirds. He toured the world and saw his music played on MTV, but eventually left the band and returned to school. 

When the university where he teaches shut down earlier this year, Temple used his time at home to rekindle his pastime: He turned the coronavirus genome into music. Each genetic letter contained within SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was converted into a musical note, bass line or drum beat. The resulting composition, which is more than an hour long, sounds a bit like ambient electronica; it is surprisingly beautiful. But will people want to listen to music that reminds them of the pain and suffering of these last nine months?

Combining interviews with musicians and researchers in Sydney, Australia, this episode of the Scienceline podcast deconstructs the story of Mark Temple, and his quest to make music out of a global crisis. Guests include: Dr. Mark Temple, a senior lecturer at Western Sydney University, and Mike Anderson, an Australian guitarist who collaborated with Temple for live performances of the coronavirus music.

This story was reported, edited and produced by Niko McCarty, with additional contributions by Ethan Freedman.

Music by: Mark Temple, Mike Anderson and Ryan Andersen

You can also listen to this episode of the Scienceline podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

About the Author

Niko McCarty

Niko McCarty is a science journalist and programmer in New York. Prior to journalism, he was a bioengineer at Imperial College London and Caltech.


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