A 60 amino acid domain of the myogenic determination gene MyoD is necessary and sufficient for sequence-specific DNA binding in vitro and myogenic conversion of transfected C3H10T1/2 cells. We show that a highly basic region, immediately upstream of the helix-loop-helix (HLH) oligomerization motif, is required for MyoD DNA binding in vitro. Replacing helix1, helix2, or the loop of MyoD with the analogous sequence of the Drosophila T4 achaete-scute protein (required for peripheral neurogenesis) has no substantial effect on DNA binding in vitro or muscle-specific gene activation in transfected C3H10T1/2 cells. However, replacing the basic region of MyoD with the analogous sequence of other HLH proteins (the immunoglobulin enhancer binding E12 protein or T4 achaete scute protein) allows DNA binding in vitro, yet abolishes muscle-specific gene activation. These findings suggest that a recognition code that determines muscle-specific gene activation lies within the MyoD basic region and that the capacity for specific DNA binding is insufficient to activate the muscle program.