Sharp or Flat: Gene Clues into Musical Ability

Medical Xpress, March 11, 2014

Music surfaces frequently in the great Nature vs. Nurture debate: Why can someone be a virtuoso pianist yet their neighbour be a musical duffer? Does the answer lie in genes or upbringing?

In a study published on Tuesday that compared hundreds of individuals, scientists said the first step towards answering the question may lie in DNA—in several genes that detect and interpret sounds.

Researchers took blood samples from 767 people from 76 families, ranging in age from seven to 94 years. Some families had a strong musical tradition, boasting several professional players.

The scientists unravelled the genetic code from the samples and carried out a comparison between the volunteers, looking for variants in their DNA.

They also asked the volunteers to do three musical tests. The guinea pigs were asked to distinguish between notes that had slightly different tones and durations, and to identify sequences of notes that were subtly different from each other.

Among those who performed well in these tests, the big standout was tiny but significant differences in several genes located on Chromosome 4 which help determine how we hear and perceive sound.

One variant lies on a gene called GATA2, which is important for the hair cells in the inner ear. The delicate fibres on these cells move in response to different frequencies and transmit a signal through the auditory nerve to the brain.

Another telltale variant was found in a gene called PCDH7, which plays an important role in a part of the brain called the amygdala—believed to be the driver for how we transform sounds into patterns.

These are only a few of what is likely to be a bigger gene haul, but in any case DNA goes only part-way to explaining musical ability, the authors said.



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  • Spartacus

    Almost everything we are is in our genes, whether the marxists like it or not .

    • My grandmother, who had little or no education, knew that: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” She grew up a poor farm girl, yet was far more wise than the Cultural Marxists who infest our institutions.

      • Alexandra1973

        There’s education/indoctrination, then there’s wisdom. Sounds like your grandmother was a wise woman.

      • Pelagian

        And God bless her soul too. Wish there were more of her type still around. Talk about ‘lost wisdom of the ancients’. The Learning Channel doesn’t have to go back to the pyramids. All they have to go back to is about 2 generations in America.

  • Alexandra1973

    My maternal grandmother sang opera, my mother was pretty good at piano (she still has Grandma’s piano in her basement), and I was reading music at the age of 4 and played flute in the school band.

    When my son was one month old he would wave his arms in time to any music that was playing. He tends to be artistic, I wonder how he’d do musically.

  • Pelagian

    These are only a few of what is likely to be a bigger gene haul, but in any case DNA goes only part-way to explaining musical ability, the authors said.

    1) “part-way” = c. 97% I’m guessing. Nice word trick, lib!

    2) If I can get theological for a moment, this is God’s way of bestowing on the human race a community of diverse talents. Can you imagine how hard it would be as a parent to make your kid try everything from rocket science to woodworking, to singing to painting to ….. No! parents have a knowledge set, handed down from their parents, about what the family is likely to be good at. “Joneses are good at sports, Does are good at music, etc. “.

    • Anglokraut

      You just described the Bachs, the Mozarts, the Wagners…

      Maybe it’s a German thing?

      • Nah, we have the Jacksons.

        • Anglokraut

          Seems a bit of a mixed bag with that family.

      • Irishgirl

        My family is Irish, and nearly all of us are musical, across the generations. Christmas to me means carols sung in four-part harmony around the piano. And then I have a sister who is tone-deaf, born that way. She loves to sing but it is painful for the rest of us to listen.

      • i don’t know about Wagner, but JS Bach had 60 professional musicians in his immediate family and Mozart’s father was also a professional musician.

        In modern times, Eddie Van Halen’s father was a profesional musician.

        • Anglokraut

          The Bach family is a perfect example: his father was a city musician and trumpeter (back when important announcements got a trumpet fanfare), and one of his older brothers was charged with his musical education when young J.S. Bach was old enough to be apprenticed. Bach was so advanced that he would copy the music that his brother said was too difficult for him, by the light of the moon, just so he would have something to challenge him.
          I did a paper on J.S. Bach for a history class, so this is a familiar topic for me. I also went into lecture mode on my boyfriend about the Brandenburg Concerti, just a few days ago–but fortunately, he likes it when I teach him something new.

          • Bach is pretty interesting, can you reccomend a good bio?

          • Anglokraut

            I read the English translation of “The True Life of J.S. Bach” and it was very detailed. However, one of my criticisms of the book was that the prose sections were clunky, so I’ll bet it flows a lot better in the original German. But as far as information goes, it’s very well researched.

          • Thanks.

        • Yngwie Malmsteen’s whole family has a classical background apparently. He revolutionised neo-classical guitar.

          • That doesn’t surprise me.

  • Anglokraut

    So talent can be bred, but it takes a nurturing environment for that talent to flourish? Wow, I so didn’t see that coming!
    Perhaps I was able to teach myself the flute, saxophone, and oboe off of only two years of group lessons for the clarinet, because I have a mother who played clarinet and oboe when she was in school, a grandmother who was a church organist, and an uncle who was a band director for a public school until he retired in his 60s?
    In my case, the talent was bred in, but it took a long time before I could convince my parents for more clarinet lessons; but once I started advanced study, I knew I had to show real progress or they wouldn’t keep up the expense. Let me just say that muscle memory is a great thing, because I can still play in every key all the major scales, the three types of minor scales, arpeggios, and thirds. And it was worth it!

    • Irishgirl

      Your family sounds like mine. 🙂

      • Anglokraut

        I also have two brothers who played in the band: an older brother who started on the trumpet, and switched to the tuba, and a younger who took up percussion, and became very good at jazz and blues accompaniment. Really the only member of my family with no musical talent is my father; however, my dad’s musical taste for bands as different as Black Sabbath, Boston, and Queen influenced my preference for liking what sounds good to me, regardless of who recorded it.

  • Einsatzgrenadier

    I don’t even understand why the liberals are opposed to genetic explanations of human behavior. Do they think that because it’s genetic that people in positions of power will discriminate against their beloved minorities? If blacks are underperforming academically and there’s a plausible genetic explanation for their lack of achievement, wouldn’t it make sense to find out what it is in order to help blacks improve their academic performance? This is why liberals are such morons. They oppose the very technology that could potentially alleviate many of the world’s problems, such as crime and poverty. If liberals weren’t so stupid, they would realize that the ongoing scientific research into racial and sexual differences is one of the best things they have going for them.

  • APaige

    The ability to discern pitch is genetic. I am without question one of the worlds’ worst guitarist. I have been playing for a lot longer than I care to admit. I know people with perfect pitch but really had no desire to play music. I know some who ‘developed’ better pitch recognition, but must have had some sort of genetic advantage. There must be ‘different’ levels of genetic musical ability? Or does ‘effort’ turn a switch on?

    • Alexandra1973

      I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket while singing but I’ve learned to listen and discern whether an instrument is out of tune. That comes from having been in the school band since the age of 9 (and of course marching band in high school).

      I never had private lessons, either, and I did fairly well, was first chair in the eighth grade and kept that position the entire school year.

    • Anglokraut

      If only it was genetic; I’ve been playing since I was ten, but knowing if a note is out of tune in relation to my place in the chord has never been a strength for me. I know certain fingerings that can tweek a note sharp or flat, but usually I depend on my familiarity with my instrument, and its own natural inclinations. For example, I play the clarinet, a Buffet R-13 with a Pyne Bel Canto mouthpiece–and I know that my A above middle C is flat, but just a half-step up to B-flat, and I’m sharp.
      I am pretty good though at playing by ear, but when I figure out a song, I have to do it on the flute. It’s not my best instrument, but it’s the only one I have pitched in C.

      • Alexandra1973

        And then on the flute, rolling the mouthpiece inward or outward can affect the pitch. Lots of things!

        D flat also tends to be a tricky note on the flute, doesn’t seem to sound right. I think you know what I mean–not the one immediately above middle C.

        • Anglokraut

          Oh, yeah, I know the only you mean! G above middle C on a clarinet has the same problem, as both notes are produced by having an “open” hand position. Clarinet players simply call it “open G”, and it has notorious tuning issues.

          • Alexandra1973

            I had a clarinet for a short time, I’d forgotten about the G. If I remember right (it’s been a while–years) middle C is the thumb and first through third fingers of the left hand, D you take off the ring finger, until you reach F where you have just the thumb.

            Bringing back memories here….

            I also rented a trumpet for a time after high school, and I tried out my cousin’s trombone way back when. I wish I didn’t live in an apartment.

          • Anglokraut

            You got it! The clarinet over-blows at the twelfth, which makes the lower register more of a challenge to learn due to its unfamiliarity for players who start out on flute, oboe, or sax. The upper register starting at D5 is nearly identical on the soprano woodwinds–which is a helpful combination of instrument design and natural acoustics!

            I tried to learn to play my brother’s trumpet–I figured that since I had his instrument, his instruction book, and my clarinet pitched in the same key, I could just look up the fingerings and compare the pitches to figure out how to play. I didn’t anticipate the horrible, skull-splitting pain that comes with playing a brass instrument. I thought I was having an aneurism or something. Thus ended my interest in playing the trumpet. But I sure love listening to a good brass ensemble!

  • CelestiaQuesta

    They must have forgotten about the gene cell RapX which plays an important role in a part of the brain called KuntaThug.

  • Steven Bannister

    Music is the one area where the races seem pretty close to being equal. Jazz and classical are quite different of course, but both are towering achievements that require great intellect to master. Music is a sort of “common ground” between the races.

    • I disagree that “classical” music and jazz are comparable, at least across time. Modern “classical” music and jazz might be comparable, but that shows the decline of composers.

  • Vito Powers

    Why such a lack of our sacred Diversity in Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs? Why aren’t they kowtowing to Jesse Jackson’s Wall Street Project that is promoting Diversity? Unless da good Reverend Jeese is being paid off for his silence? No, that couldn’t possibly be, could it?

    • Anglokraut

      Uh, good points, but wrong topic thread. This article is about the heritability of musical talent.

  • Fast fingers are no good without fast memorisation.

    I wonder what IQ Yngwie Malmsteen has? Has anybody around here heard ‘far beyond the sun’?