The musical mutations of the Covid virus

covid virus sheet music

With the recent government announcement that all remaining legal Covid restrictions are to be lifted, it now seems possible that life will return to something approaching normality. Few sectors will welcome this more than promotors and performers of live music, which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. This is surely good news for, literally, the gig economy and also for our mental well-being. Win-win, surely?

Perhaps not. Much research has been done into viral mutations in the last two years. One hitherto under-reported aspect of this concerns how changes in musical genres and fashions can help us understand the transformations in viruses. For a time, these investigations seemed to be little more than an interesting theory. Evidence released this week to Penny Post, however, has revealed that the truth might be rather more concerning.

We immediately contacted Donald Croclack, the Eno Professor of the recently created chair of Musoepidemiology at University College Cambridge who is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on this issue.

“Music shares two very important traits with viruses,” he explained. “The first is that both are complex things but which are composed of recognisable and fundamental components. The individual parts of a virus are basic and well understood. Music is also simple and regular with, as regards tone, only twelve different ingredients. In both cases, though, its the combinations that create the infinite variety of the results.”

And the second thing?

“The second thing,” he continued, “is that both mutate very fast. The speed with which the virus can do this is now well known. Musical genres also change all the time. In both cases, it’s hard to tell which is, as it were, a sub-set of a previous type and which a completely new variety. It depends on what aspects you’re looking at and the experts don’t always agree. Britpop hip-hop shoe-gaze surf-rock ska, for example. Have you heard of that?”

We admitted we hadn’t.

“No, well, it doesn’t exist – not today. But it could tomorrow. That’s the point.”

We then asked about the more concerning development which had recently been identified.

“Ah, yes,” he said, his expression clouding. “You might recall that last year some work was done on the effect that Bitcoin super-computers were having on prime numbers, making some of them unfit for purpose due to the immense computing pressures that they were subjected to We also discovered worrying cases of some of these mutated primes as it were  jumping species and appearing on the laptops and calculators of the researchers. Well, it appears that something similar is happening with music and Covid.”

This did indeed seem to be a worrying development. We asked him to explain.

“We have recently discovered,” he said, his voice dropping a minor third in pitch and 22bpm in tempo to emphasise the gravity of his point, “that a whole new range of Covid-like viruses is emerging whose behaviour shows alarming similarities to – and possibly the direct influence of – different musical styles.”

We asked how this could have happened.

“One theory is that during lockdown many people were listening to or playing much more music than normal. Previously it had been mainly a background accompaniment to social life – but for many it then became a replacement for it. People who hadn’t picked up a CD or a violin for ages were suddenly at it all the time. There were crotchets and quavers flying around all over the place, not all of them perfectly executed. This is the perfect breeding grounds for mutations. As with the prime numbers, it’s hardly surprising that some have jumped species. That’s right,” he added, lowering his voice a further semitone, “the virus has become musically sentient.”

There was quite a long silence at this point.

“Look, ” he said, “I’ve got another Zoom call in two minutes with the Director of the LSO. But I’ve just emailed you a list of the main musoepidemiological strains we’ve identified so far. Let me know if you have any questions…” And with that, the connection was cut, his last words fading into a shimmering melisma with a powerful back-beat and the faint suggestion of an Andean pan-pipe.

We’re happy to publish this list below. As he explained, it’s not expected that this will be exhaustive. See also the note at the end should you believe you are aware of any which should be added to it.

WMHO – Muso-Covid Genre Variants of Concern, 22 February 2022

The World Musical Health Organisation has today issued the following list of musoepidemiological genres of concern along with the characteristics of each which have so far been identified.

The 13/8-Freeform variant. This is unpredictable in every respect: just when the patient or their clinician feels that some pattern has been achieved, a wholly new one develops which can continue for a long time, or blur into something else again. Some patients have a described a variety of negative symptoms including an urgent desire to be somewhere else and the feeling that “everything is falling apart.” It has so far only been detected in males over the age of 40.

The C# variant. Although in many ways similar to the far more benign C Major and A minor variants, this is very hard for most practitioners (particularly those trained in the gee-tar method) to treat because of the number of incidental symptoms, which also include severe finger strain in the non-dominant hand. Recent reports have suggested that the firm application of a capo at the first fret can result in rapid improvement.

The 12-bar variant. Although highly infectious, this presents a very familiar pattern, normally over a 12-hour cycle. Most patients describe what is often   called a “flattening” effect which often occurs about three hours in which can create incongruous side-effects for some. This is probably relatively benign and causes no lasting harm.

The Vivaldi variant. This also tends to present a regular and predicable trajectory. It shares with the 12-bar variant the characteristic of each new symptomatic variation being anticipated by the patient a fraction of a second before it actually appears, so perhaps giving the body time to react. Many patients have, however, demonstrated possibly psychosomatic symptoms including a quasi-religious sense of euphoria.

The Shred Metal variant. It’s very hard to know what’s going here. A lot of background noise and what statisticians call “feedback” has been detected on much of the data. This seems mainly to affect young males, although the reasons for this are not yet fully understood.

The Folk Variant. The course of the infection can be meandering with regular returns to the same point, the condition then repeating with only very minor variations. It tends to be “top heavy”, affecting the head more than the chest. Traditional remedies such as borage, hellebore and small beer may be effective. Symptoms include occasional deafness in one or other ear (sometimes relieved by stopping it up with a finger), a slightly nasal whine when speaking and a sudden and seemingly random growth of male facial hair.

The Prog/Ambient variant. This has a very low transmission rate but, once infected, patients often remain ill for for a considerable time. Doctors have so far been unable to discern any clear pattern to the infection nor what stage it has reached at any given point. A simple course of Dohremi has proved effective in all but the most extreme cases.

The Re-mix variant. It’s currently unclear if this is a distinctive variant or merely a general description of a particularly insidious kind of mutation. The viral profile displays the evidence of what is termed “fused multiple parenting” with many distinct varieties pressed close together so as to almost, but not quite, form a separate entity. Symptoms include mental confusion, flashbacks and litigation paranoia.

The Ska/Reggae variant. Like the Folk variant, this is clinically problematic because of the longevity of the symptoms. It also displays an opposite characteristic to the Vivaldi in that each symptomatic change takes place slightly later than expected, so possibly confusing antibodies into attacking an enemy that isn’t (yet) there. An interesting noted symptom is the repeated use of phrases ending in words which rhyme with “Zion” or “constitution” during the illness and for some time afterwards.

The Operatic variant. Here symptoms also tend be prolonged and can exist on what clinicians have reported as being on “a hyper-dramatic scale.” Patients have a tendency to cry easily; many have been reported being fixated with images of magical rings, pointless suicide and fat women. People under 35 have so far proved wholly resistant to this strain, which is believed to have originated in Italy.

The R&B variant. The main symptoms of the R&B, which are generally fairly bland, include occasional descent into “breakdown”: this normally occurs towards the end of the infection and is generally followed by a gradually fading repetition of earlier symptoms. As with the Ska/Reggae, this appears to have an effect on patient’s word patterns, most remarks tending to involve variations on “baby/don’t say maybe” and “until the morning light/everything’s going to be all right.”

The Punk variant. This is in some ways the the most worrying as, like the 13/8-Freeform (13/8F), it is highly volatile. Unlike 13/8F, however, it is highly transmissible, particularly in the 12 to 25 demographic. Some researchers see similarities with the so-called “McLaren flu” of the late 1970s: despite considerable efforts, no antidote was then developed (although a basic course of Farso Latido did prove efficacious in some instances) and the epidemic eventually burnt itself out in the early 1980s. Musoepidemiologists are concerned that this was long enough ago to leave most people with no natural antibodies should it achieve pandemic proportions today. It is on this variant that the most attention is currently being concentrated.

The AOR/Muzak variant. The symptoms here are so mild that on occasions patients are not even sure if they are suffering from anything at all or even if they are actually awake, or alive. Scientists have so far been unable to agree if this is a variant of its own or merely “an absence of all variants.” There is also some debate as to whether it should be regarded as musical in origin at all.

Important note

The World Musical Health Organisation is aware that other variants may come to light at short notice. In order to assist the WMHO in the detection, classification and treatment of these, readers are invited to submit a proposed name and brief description of the suspected genre in the box below. The debates about classification alone currently occupy the time of several hundred musoepidemiological experts: it is vital that they be kept fully engaged on this task rather than returned to their traditional occupations of writing incomprehensible articles for scholarly music magazines and blogs which very few people read.

Brian Quinn

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