Sep 20, 2022 - For Scientists

What the Polygenic Basis of Rhythm Can Tell Us About Musical Traits

music guitar

A new study found that the genetic variants that underlie the ability to move to the beat of music also predict other measures of musicality, including one’s ability to follow a melody, distinguish pitch or rhythm, or even the amount of time practice singing or playing an instrument. 

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics and 23andMe used results from a recent genome-wide association study (GWAS) on beat synchronization to estimate an individual’s genetic musical propensity using a polygenic score (PGS) approach in a large sample of 5,648 Swedish twins. 

In addition to providing their genetic information, the twins were asked to complete various music questionnaires and music-related tasks. 

Control phenotypes included non-musical traits and achievements like general intelligence, sports practice, and global and work-related flow experiences. 

Genes and Environment Working Together 

The team found that the PGS of self-reported beat synchronization ability (referred to in the study as PGSrhythm) was able to predict overall musicality – including musical skills as well as a tendency to enjoy and engage in musical behavior – but had no impact on the control phenotypes that were not directly related to music.

They also identified a relationship between a musically enriched childhood environment and an individual’s PGSrhythm, suggesting a correlation between genes and environment. This means that an individual’s environmental exposure (for example, whether they will take music classes) can depend on their genetic predisposition to music.

Beyond furthering the understanding of musicality’s genetic architecture, this work has far-reaching implications for the validity of using a polygenic score approach in future genetic research and shows that even a minimal phenotype used in the discovery GWAS can be a relatively good indicator of broader musicality. 

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