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Musical Genes

By Nusrath Jahan and Jeremy Rodriguez

Have you ever dreamed of becoming the next Mozart? It turns out that by using your own genome, you possibly could!

The genetic basis of music creativity was investigated in 19 Finnish musical families via a web-based questionnaire. The questionnaire asked participants about their music background and participation in creative music activities, such as music composition, improvisation or arrangement. The findings supported the presence of a significant genetic component in this sample population, with a heritability estimate of 84%. However, there were no significant associations between music creativity and polymorphisms of candidates genes such as TPH1, COMT, and AVPR1A.

In a subsequent analysis on five multigenerational Finnish families and 172 unrelated individuals using the same music creativity questionnaire, results showed that a deletion on 5p15.33 was present in 48% of family members and 28% of unrelated participants who exhibited the creative phenotype, while a duplication on 2p22.1 was present in 27% of creative family members. The region 2p22.1 contains the gene GALM, which is associated with serotonin transporter binding potential in the human thalamus. The medial geniculate nucleus of the thalamus forms part of the auditory pathways and has been implicated in music-related functions, including beat perception. Furthermore, Swedish scientists studying 1,211 pairs of adult identical twins and 1,358 pairs of fraternal twins measured the time spent practicing music over various time intervals. They tested the twins’ ability to detect differences in pitch, distinguish different melodies and recognize rhythms. In one case, a pair of twins were determined to have the same musical intuition, despite one twin having practiced music for nearly 20,000 hours more than their sibling. The researchers came to the conclusion that twins could have the same music ability no matter how much one practiced more than the other. But why?

Several chromosomes have been proven to be related to music ability and involvement. Recent studies indicate that the ability to compose and arrange music is 30 percent determined by genes. In other words, a predisposition to musical talent is inherited for certain individuals! There are several loci on chromosome 4 implicated in singing and music perception. A certain loci on chromosome 8q may also be implicated in absolute pitch and music perception. Absolute pitch (AP) or “perfect pitch” is the rare music ability of being able to identify or produce pitches without relying on an external reference. Moreover, chromosome 12q’s AVPR1A gene is involved in music perception, memory, and music listening. Similarly, the SLC6A4 gene on chromosome 17q has shown association to music memory and motivation.

However, is it really all genes? Professor David Z. Hambrick, a psychologist at Michigan State University, has done research on the genetic influences on musical accomplishment. Professor Hambrick has concluded that musical talent is determined by the interaction between our genes and our environment. “Genes become more, not less important in differentiating people as they practice…genetic potentials for skilled performance are most fully expressed and fostered by practice.", Hambrick claims. Comprehensively, Hambrick’s findings explain that basic musical abilities can be determined by genes, but environmental influences nurture those abilities and make better musicians.

All in all, genes indeed do contribute to one’s music talent, but it’s only a piece of the bigger picture. Mozart’s genome might have been filled with genes that could have equipped him with the necessary skills to become one of the world’s best musicians, but if you ask him, you will likely find that hard work and determination can pay off, too. So, the next time you imagine yourself performing in Carnegie Hall, think about all of the hours that skilled musicians put into their work. Genes are only a starting point.

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