Researchers discover the genes that help you groove to music
An international team of scientists, led by researchers from Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, have reported the first large-scale investigation into the genetics of musical rhythm. The landmark study homed in on nearly 70 genetic variants linked with our ability to move in sync with a beat.
The new research leveraged data from commercial genetics company 23andMe. More than 600,000 people participated in the study, with musical rhythm measured through a self-reported questionnaire.
Groove is in the heart - or rather, your genome— 23andMe Research & Therapeutics (@23andMeResearch) July 27, 2022
"Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity"
Check out our latest collaboration w/ @MNiarchou et al. in @NatureHumBehav #musicscience #GWAShttps://t.co/MMvQzNvM4g pic.twitter.com/DBcqHLD9Hq
“Our GWAS [genome-wide- association study] results showed that the genetic architecture of beat synchronization was highly polygenic, with 69 genome-wide significant loci, and SNP-based heritability of 13-16% (liability scale),” explained Reyna Gordon, a researcher working on the study. “Variation in many genes is thus associated with phenotypic variation in the trait.”
The findings affirm there is no one single "rhythm" gene. Instead, the ability to move in synchrony with a beat is an incredibly complex trait. As Gordon noted, the role of heritable genetics in this trait is estimated at no more than 16%, so it is clear plenty of other factors influence this kind of musical rhythm.
Most interesting is the study’s analysis into the other effects of the genes found to influence beat synchronization. According to Gordon, many of the genes identified in the study also play a role in neurodevelopment and crucial rhythmic biological traits, such as walking.
In this first large-scale genomic study of a musical trait, we found that alleles at nearly 70 separate regions of the genome were differentially associated with beat synchronization (i.e. moving in time with a musical beat) pic.twitter.com/PnFRhKCG6k— Reyna L Gordon (@CrunchyNeuroSci) September 19, 2022
“Heritability was enriched for genes involved in central nervous system function, incl. genes expressed very early in brain development and genes in auditory and motor cortical subcortical regions of the brain, connecting the genetic & neural architecture of rhythm,” said Gordon. “We also discovered that beat synchronization shares some of its genetic architecture with other traits, including several traits encompassing other biological rhythms (walking, breathing, and circadian chronotype) – and we then replicated these association phenotypically.”
One limitation of this first-of-its-kind study was the fact its genetic sample primarily consisted of people with European ancestry. While the researchers do suggest it's crucial for future studies to examine broader genetic datasets, they also urge scientists to be cautious, as this kind of study needs to be very carefully conducted.
In a commentary on their research, Gordon and co-author Nori Jacoby stress the need for “ethically and socially responsible” conduct in future genetics studies on musicality. An accompanying study from Gordon, Jacoby and colleagues is attempting to lay out some ethical guidelines in the hopes of avoiding racist or eugenicist outcomes from this kind of research.
“… it is crucial to understand that genome-wide associations with beat synchronization are not deterministic and that we cannot make deterministic individual inferences or rankings based solely on genetics,” stressed Gordon and Jacoby. “Environment also plays a major (and not yet well-understood) role in influencing individual rhythm skills!”
The new study was published in Nature Human Behavior.