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REPORT | Music & Genetics: Are You Really Just Born With It?

By Anya Wassenberg on August 25, 2023

Morning hymn at Sebastian Bachs' (Toby Edward Rosenthal, 1870/Public domain)
Morning hymn at Sebastian Bachs’ (Toby Edward Rosenthal, 1870/Public domain)

How much of musical ability is the result of genetic disposition? It’s a question that has puzzled both musicians and non-musicians alike for centuries. Certainly, talent seems to run through some family lines, but there are also many virtuosi who were the first in their bloodline to display a musical gift.

So, are you just born with it?

Researchers in the field of neuropsychology in Sweden, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands got together to examine that question. Their paper, simply titled Music and Genetics, appears in the September 2023 issue of Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Music in our genes

The researchers point to human history in making the case for genetics as a basis for human musicality. They point out that all populations from across the globe have been making music since the dawn of human history — evidence that it is part of our biology.

They also point to the baroque-era Bach family with its dozens of musical members as an example of how musical ability so often clusters in families. In addition, rare conditions that affect a specific chromosome result in differing effects on musical ability. The gene mutations, in other words, seem to have a direct effect on musicality.

Interestingly, the study uses twin data as well as genotype data, standard elements in making their conclusions. Using data from twins allows researchers to assess the role played by genetics vs environment. Twin studies demonstrate a link between musical ability and genetics. The researchers looked specifically at data regarding adult engagement in music. The influence of environment is stronger during childhood and adolescence, where genetics has the stronger pull into adulthood.

Some overall conclusions from their examination of existing research:

  • The average heritability of music-related traits seems to be 42%, meaning it ranges from 0% to 86%, with an average of 42%.
  • There is an overall genetic influence related to music, but it has many variants, and each variant has a small, specific effect.
  • There is a great deal of overlap between musical traits when it comes to genetics.
  • Our reactions to engagement in music also have a genetic basis.

It’s not all genetics, however…

A combination of genetics and a musical environment as a child directly influence the age when people begin to play, as well as their levels of expertise as an adult.

The paper talks about a study of 6,610 twins that examined the level of musical enrichment they experienced during childhood, including music lessons, going to concerts, the number of recordings played in the family home, other family members who played an instrument, and so on.

The results clearly show a strong link between growing up in a musically rich environment and the level of musical achievement in adulthood.

  • It wasn’t only about achievement, but a greater variation in the way that was expressed.
  • A musically rich environment also increased the level of inherited musicality.

In other words, there is a strong upward spiral for musical achievement when genetic predisposition is combined with a supportive and musically rich environment.

Molecular genetic research is just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to being able to identify the genes involved in musical ability. More research with larger sample sizes will add a greater understanding to this fascinating field.

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