Jun 19, 2022 - Research

We Got the Beat

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There might be something to the saying, “you’ve got the music in you.”

A new genetic study in the journal Nature Human Behavior led by researchers at Vanderbilt University and 23andMe found more than 60 regions of the genome associated with beat synchronization, the ability to move in time with the beat of music.

Many of the variants are in or near genes involved in neural function and early brain development. In addition, the researchers found that beat synchronization shares some of the same genetic architecture involved in biological rhythms such as walking, breathing, and circadian patterns.

The Musical Glue

The study, the first large-scale genome-wide association study of a musical trait, is part of a broader effort by researchers at Vanderbilt to understand the relationship between language, music, and the brain. Scientists are using a variety of methods to better understand the associations between musicality and different cognitive, neurological, personality, and health traits.

Whether you find yourself singing and moving to the beat of your favorite song at a concert, singing a classic nursery rhyme with your toddler, or dancing along to the bass in a Zumba class, rhythm is so fundamental to music and automatic to our engagement with music that we usually don’t even think about it.

Reyna Gordon, Ph.D, – (Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

The ability to synchronize with the beat of rhythms in music is at the core of musicality in humans, whether it’s someone tapping along to music on the radio while driving to work, a group of indigenous people in the Amazon clapping or drumming in communal ritual, the ability to move in time a rhythm is ubiquitous.

“Rhythm is the quintessential glue holding together music, and music is a bond in all human cultures,” said Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., the senior author of the study and an associate professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery and the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Dr. Gordon co-led the study with fellow Vanderbilt associate professor Lea Davis, Ph.D.,  research instructor Maria Niarchou, Ph.D., and a team of international collaborators.

Music and Language

But rhythm and the ability to move in time with a beat are also about more than just making music; there is evidence that rhythm also supports language development and social communication. Furthermore, these new results are beginning to shed light on how our biology contributes to something as culturally unique and intricate as our musicality. Musical behaviors and preferences can be strongly influenced by both culture and genetics.

Twin studies indicate that perhaps as much as 40 percent of the population’s variability in musical ability is due to genetic factors. But this is not a simple gene versus environment equation. For instance, genetics may influence certain traits by drawing individuals to seek out cultural or interpersonal experiences such as music training or music listening.

Studying the complexity of those possible genetic influences on musical traits is only now possible with very large numbers of people participating in this research. 

Very Large Study

Rhythm and beat synchronization are fundamental components of music-making. The beat is the steady pulse that we feel in music, whereas the rhythmic patterns of music tend to be organized around that beat. Many different genes each have a small part to play in the genetic chorus that influences beat perception and synchronization.  

Finding those genetic associations for beat synchronization demands a large sample size. In this case, the researchers used data from more than 600,000 23ndMe customers who consented to participate in the research. They each answered a survey question about whether they had the ability to “clap in time with a musical beat.”

From that data, researchers were able to identify 69 genetic loci associated with beat synchronization.

Online Methods

In a part of the study led by Dr. Nori Jacoby at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, the team did additional work with what are called phenotype validation experiments, to confirm that the single survey item was an accurate reflection of people’s beat synchronization skills. These experiments included an online test that required participants to tap a laptop in time with the beat of musical excerpts, and they also tested how people responded to differences in musical rhythms. These results helped to determine that the survey item was a good proxy for measuring beat synchronization and rhythm abilities, thus boosting confidence in the genetic association results. 

These new findings are thought to represent a major leap forward in our scientific understanding of the links between genomics and musicality. 

“Musical beat processing has intriguing links to other aspects of cognition including speech processing, and plays a key role in the positive effect of music on certain neurological disorders, including on gait in Parkinson’s disease,” said Aniruddh D. Patel, Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, an expert not involved in the study. 

Using such a large dataset allows researchers to find new insights into the biology and evolutionary foundations of musicality, Dr. Patel said.

“While recent years have seen a growth in neuroscientific and developmental work on beat processing, the current study takes the biological study of beat processing to a new level,” he added.

The Music We Speak

There are limitations to the study. For one, it only measures one aspect of musicality, and it cannot be used to predict individual musical ability. The study is also limited in that it was done primarily in people of European ancestry and does not capture potential beat synchronization genetic associations within other populations. Several members of the authorship team have also put forth a set of guidelines for ethically and socially responsible conduct of musicality genetics and urge the research community and broader public to understand the broader social context of this work.

Still, the research is an important first step in understanding the genetics of musicality and has become a cornerstone for continued research by combining two unique resources of 23andMe and Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s BioVU research database.

Using the variants identified in this study, Dr. Gordon and her team were able to create a statistical model, known as a polygenic score. They were then able to test the predictive ability of that beat synchronization polygenic score by applying it to musically active patients in the BioVU database in comparison with a control population. The findings showed that the polygenic score could distinguish the musically active patients from the controls, further validating the genetic association results.

The study has also allowed the team to explore a potential link with the evolution of language traits. So for example, Dr. Gordon, along with scientists from 23andMe, recently completed a study linking the genomic signatures of human beat synchronization and vocal learning in songbirds. This study suggests convergent evolution between two very distinct traits: moving to a musical beat and learning complex vocal sequences. These research directions may pave the way to new knowledge on the origins of communication skills. This in turn adds a new dimension to emerging evidence that musical rhythm skills and language skills share some properties in the brain. 

You can read a helpful FAQ prepared by Dr. Gordon and her team here.

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