A new study adds another layer of understanding to genetics of musicality, specifically rhythmic perception, and musical engagement or appreciation.
The research led by scientists from the University of Colorado, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and 23andMe, follows on a series of studies looking at the genetics of several different aspects of musicality.
Music in Life
These studies explore not just music ability but a wide range of associations between those abilities and such things as cognition, health, language, and neurodevelopment.
“Music plays a huge role in our lives, and we want to understand why music is so tied to our development, personality, and health,” said Daniel Gustavson, an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute for Behavioral Genetics. Gustavson is also a co-author of the study.
“We’re especially interested in learning whether genetic factors make some people more likely to play music than others, and who might benefit most from being exposed to music lessons,” he said.
Nature and Nurture
Published in the journal, Annal of the New York Academy of Science, this study used a polygenic score from the results of a recent genome-wide association study to determine the impact of genetic influences on beat synchronization on both rhythmic perception and music engagement.
The work provides a heritability estimate for musical traits that relies on genetic data from 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research and then used a polygenic score to confirm these were some of the same shared genetic influences observed in a recent study of beat synchronization.
Associations with Other Traits
The researchers then did a cross trait analysis to find distinct associations with non-musical traits like cognition or personality traits. For example, genetic scores capturing high extraversion and a preference for being an evening person were related with more self-reported musical engagement.
“On the one hand, individuals with more accurate (genetically influenced) ability to move in synchrony with a musical beat may be more likely to seek out and engage with music to a greater degree in their lifetime simply because it is easier for them to learn and play,” according to the paper.
The researchers noted that the reverse could also be true. In other words, genes that support musical skills may lead us to seek out music experiences, but early music engagement could also strengthen music skills.
Although we cannot know the direction of causality in these associations from the current data, genetic links among these musicality traits may be explained by multiple factors. Additionally, there are many environmental factors that influence music skills and musical engagement, and their relationship.
The Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab has very helpful resources to explain genetic research more fully around musicality. You can find out more here.