“Tapping, clapping, and dancing in synchrony with the beat — the pulse — of music is at the core of our human musicality,” said Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and co-director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab.
Gordon and her colleagues have uncovered a key finding on the biological foundations of musical rhythm as a result of a recent study conducted by researchers at the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute in partnership with 23andMe, a personal genomics and biotechnology company.
The research, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, is the first comprehensive genome-wide association analysis of a musical trait. Gordon and Lea Davis, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and co-senior authors on the findings, along with Maria Niarchou, Ph.D., research instructor in the Department of Medicine and first author of the paper, co-led a team of international collaborators in novel groundwork toward understanding the biology underlying how musicality relates to other health traits.
This study identified 69 genetic variants associated with beat synchronization — the ability to move in synchrony with the beat of music. Many of the variants are in or near genes involved in neural function and early brain development. “Rhythm is not just influenced by a single gene — it is influenced by many hundreds of genes,” Gordon said.
The research also discovered that biological rhythms such as walking, breathing, and circadian patterns share part of the same genetic architecture with beat synchronization.
These new findings emphasize relationships between rhythm and health and give insight into how biology influences something as culturally distinctive and complex as musicality. Importantly, the researchers emphasized that the environment unquestionably plays a significant influence and that genetics only partially explain the variability in rhythm abilities. The complexity of those potential genetic impacts on musical abilities can only now be studied with very large numbers of people participating in this study.
In this case, the study used data from more than 600,000 research participants. From that data, the researchers were able to identify genetic alleles that vary in association with participants’ beat synchronization ability. 23andMe’s large research dataset with millions of individuals who consented to participate offered a unique opportunity for researchers to capture even small genetic signals, said David Hinds, Ph.D., a research fellow and statistical geneticist at 23andMe.
These new findings represent a leap forward for 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. 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,” Patel added.
Reference: “Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity” by Maria Niarchou, Daniel E. Gustavson, J. Fah Sathirapongsasuti, Manuel Anglada-Tort, Else Eising, Eamonn Bell, Evonne McArthur, Peter Straub, 23andMe Research Team, J. Devin McAuley, John A. Capra, Fredrik Ullén, Nicole Creanza, Miriam A. Mosing, David A. Hinds, Lea K. Davis, Nori Jacoby, and Reyna L. Gordon, 16 June 2022, Nature Human Behaviour.
This study was funded in part by an NIH Director’s New Innovator award #DP2HD098859.