By Heather Norris Nicholson
As we adapt how we live, behave, and think at unimaginable speeds in response to the pandemic, we have been using our senses very differently.
Touch, as a source of comfort and healing, has been lost to many through social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, and the uncertainty of how we may infect or become infected.
We’re all much more cautious about touching surfaces beyond our home. Scientists have also tracked how the loss of smell and taste may be symptoms of the virus.
Sight and sound, by contrast have been working overtime as we view and listen online and all around us. When all of this is over, our personal soundtracks for COVID-19 will each be unique.
Our playlists of music that are part of who we and help us through each day or moments of need will join with other sounds that have gained new meaning.
Sirens have seemed more urgent but the lockdown brought a new quietness that enables other sounds to be heard too. The Thursday evening Clap for Our Carers, now in its seventh week, has encouraged more and more people onto doorsteps and balconies to express support and unity through sound.
Stepping outside and joining together to make a big sound has become ever more creative as people find ways to blow, bow, twang, drum, hum, or sing and clap their thanks for the hard work of others.
Music-making and the sharing of sound have embraced simultaneously going solo and becoming part of a group endeavor too, as shown by some of the creative line ups and memorable tributes made in recent weeks by performers and artists from local to international level.
Imaginative ways of responding to the crisis through music and an awareness of sound seem to be all around. Scientists have been interested in the relationship between sound (sonification) and proteins for a while.
Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has now found ways to create music to represent the protein structure of the coronavirus.
Using Artificial intelligence (AI), his team has assigned musical notes to the amino acids that make up the spikes that protrude from the surface of the coronavirus. It is through these spikes that the virus injects genetic material into host cells in order to reproduce with such devastating effect.
Buehler believes that turning the protein data into sound may help researchers to better understand the virus and offer alternative ways of thinking about something we cannot see.
Imagining COVID-19’s behaviour and the biochemical processes of its spike protein based upon vibrational patterns and structures, might even shed light upon its links with previous coronaviruses, like SARS or MERS, and inform the search for a vaccine. It’s an interesting thought. As for the sound, it makes me think of a Japanese koto.
Will it feature in a future Contemporary Music Festival or Kirklees Year of Music 2023? Who knows?