Saturday, May 30, 2009

A gene for music?

Last week a paper was published in PLoS-ONE suggesting a relation between AVPR1A-Haplotypes and musical creativity. A group of Finish researchers analyzed 19 families with a total of 343 family members on their musical aptitude —using the Seashore test and a test developed by one of the authors— and their DNA profiles. They were able to show an association between these and related genes and levels of musical creativity. The research contrasts earlier research with twins that suggested no such relation (e.g., Coon & Carey, 1989). The authors propose the interesting hypothesis that music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism, both associated with AVPR1A. Music as a form of ‘extreme’ bonding behavior...

It was just a matter of time for such a study to emerge. Still, the results of this study are merely correlational. I like to think of the capacity for music as shared instead of being special, and a result of complex nature and nurture interactions.

ResearchBlogging.orgUkkola, L., Onkamo, P., Raijas, P., Karma, K., & Järvelä, I. (2009). Musical Aptitude Is Associated with AVPR1A-Haplotypes PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005534

ResearchBlogging.orgCoon, H., & Carey, G. (1989). Genetic and environmental determinants of musical ability in twins Behavior Genetics, 19 (2), 183-193 DOI: 10.1007/BF01065903


  1. Studies of this kind always appear to me to take place under a nature vs nurture cloud. People born into musical families grow up in a musical environment, making the contribution of genetic inheritance alone difficult to measure.

  2. Alan:

    My father was a military officer and my mother a housewife: I grew up in as non-nurturing a musical environment as you could imagine. Not an anti-musical environment - both of my parents enjoyed music but didn't play instruments or read music - just not a "musical" family. Nevertheless, I managed to master harmony, counterpoint and fugue to the point that I'm pretty sure there is no better fugue writer currently living.

    Alan and Henkjan:

    I've said for years that musical proclivity is genetic. In a nutshell, you either have it, or you don't, and "having it" seems to be a pretty rare phenomenon. Calling musical talent an extreme form of bonding - like social bonding - seems not quite right to me, though. In fact, I'd say that pursuing music is really at its core an anti-social pursuit, especially for a soloist: You study alone, you practice alone, you compose alone, and you perform alone (Even if there is an audience, I'm in my own little universe). That's one of the things I love most about music: It is the ultimate solitude.

    You mention musical talent also in relation to altruism, and that I can see. To me, music is the most altruistic endeavor a human being can possibly pursue. So, I guess I'd rather think of music as an extreme form of altruism.

    As to a simple test of innate musical talent in children, displaying an intuitive tie between pitch memory and vocalization is the best, IMO. Just play a series of notes on the piano - notes that are within the vocal range of the child - and ask them to sing them back. If they can nail the pitch every time, chances are they have a modicum of musical proclivity. The nice thing about a pitch memory/vocalization test is that it can be administered to very young children in the form of a game that they will enjoy, so they will be motivated and having fun, not intimidated, and no knowledge of or experience with music is required.

    Excellent weblog.

    George Pepper