Study shows genetic link to moving to music

The first large-scale genomic study of musicality – published on the cover of Nature Human Behavior today – has identified 69 genetic variants associated with beat timing, that is, the ability to move in synchronization with the rhythm of the music (Photo of co-lead author Reyna Gordon – above this story).

An international team of scientists, including the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute and 23andMe, have demonstrated that the human ability to move in sync with a musical beat (called rhythm synchronization) is partially encoded in the human genome.

Many genes associated with beat timing are involved in central nervous system function, including genes expressed very early in brain development and in areas underlying auditory and motor skills, according to co-lead author Reyna Gordon, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery and Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab.

“Rhythm isn’t just influenced by a single gene, it’s influenced by several hundred genes,” Gordon said. “Tapping, clapping and dancing in sync with the rhythm of the music is at the heart of our human musicality.”

The study also found that beat synchronization shares some of its genetic architecture with other traits, including biological rhythms such as walking, breathing, and circadian patterns.

“This is new groundwork for understanding the biology underlying the relationship between musicality and other health traits,” said co-lead author Lea Davis, associate professor of medicine.

23andMe’s large research dataset has provided study data from over 600,000 clients who have consented to participate in research, allowing researchers to identify genetic alleles that vary in association with the ability to synchronize participant beats.

“The large number of consenting study participants provided a unique opportunity for our group to capture even small genetic signals,” said David Hinds, PhD, researcher and statistical geneticist at 23andMe. “These findings represent a quantum leap forward in scientific understanding of the links between genetics and musicality.”

First author Maria Niarchou, PhD, research assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, said the study results “established new links between the genetic and neural architecture of musical rhythm, thereby improving our understanding of the how our genomes tune our brains to the beat of music.”

The work was supported in part by NIH Director’s New Innovator Award #DP2HD098859. Visit the study’s FAQ to learn more.

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