Helsingin yliopisto



University Of Helsinki
Department of Medical Genetics
Biomedicum Helsinki
PO Box 63 (Haartmaninkatu 8) Room B311b
FI-00014 University of Helsinki Finland

Tel. +358 50 544 7030

Musical aptitude as a property of human beings

Musical ability is a fascinating phenomenon. Musical aptitude varies between individuals and it may arise in several different ways. Musical abilities have been studied for over hundred years but not until now have attempts been made to uncover the molecular genetics of musical aptitude.

Music is universal. It is practiced and listened to in every culture, and it has been proposed that music preceded language in human communication.

Listening and enjoying listening to music do not require practice. Infants are naturally interested in music and their musical receptive skills appear very early: infants' processing of musical or music-like patterns is much like that of adults. This notion of musical predisposition implies that interest in music is an inborn property of human beings.

Our research into the biological basis of musical aptitude

We are studying the biological basis of musical aptitude using methods of music education and molecular genetics. Up till now, 98 Finnish pedigrees composed of 792 participants and 172 sporadic subjects have participated in the study.

Musical aptitude has been assessed using three music tests: the auditory structuring ability test (the Karma Music test) and Carl Seashore's pitch and time discrimination subtests. Additionally, participants have filled in an extensive web-based self-report questionnaire and blood samples have been collected from all study subjects over 12 years of age.

The most recent findings

We found that about 50% of the inheritance of music test scores can be explained by genetic factors in Finnish multigenerational families.

The genomes of 767 people, belonging to 76 families characterized by the ability to discriminate pitch, duration, and sound patterns were analyzed for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). The best association was found at chromosome 3 close to the GATA2 gene that regulates the development of cochlear hair cells and the inferior colliculus (IC) in the auditory pathway. The best linkage results were obtained on chromosome 4 that contains several genes that affect inner ear development and are expressed in amydala or hippocampus. The highest probability of linkage was obtained for pitch perception accuracy next to the protocadherin 7 gene, PCDH7 known to be expressed in cochlear and amygdaloid complexes. Amygdala is the emotional center of human brain and is reported to be affected by music. Consequently, multiple regions in the human genome are reported to be linked to musical aptitude. The function of the candidate genes implicated in the study ranges from inner ear development to auditory neurocognitive processes, suggesting that musical aptitude is affected by a combination of genes involved in the auditory pathway.

The authors note that musical aptitude is a complex behavioral trait not fully captured by the sound perception tests used in this study, and environmental factors, such as culture and music education, likely play an important role.

To elucidate the neurobiological basis of music in human evolution and communication we have demonstrated an association between arginine vasopressin receptor 1A (AVPR1A) gene variants and musical aptitude. In previous studies the AVPR1A gene and its homologies have been associated with social, emotional and behavioral traits, including pair bonding and parenting. The results suggest that music perception has an impact in attachment behavior among humans. In genome wide analysis of copy number variants (CNV) several regions were identified that contain genes affecting cognitive functions.

Ongoing studies

In order to elucidate the effect of music listening on human body we are studying genome wide expression profiles before and after listening to music among 48 participants. we also sequence miRNAs in these samples to elucidate the effect of music on gene regulation. In comparison, studies on the effect of music performance on genome wide expression profiles and gene regulation among professional musicians in a traditional concert setting is underway.

We are also investigating the evolutionary background of musical aptitude using haplotype analysis of genome wide SNP data in Finnish families.

Identification of molecules associated with music perception, listening and performing will likely reveal new mechanisms of brain function. Answers to these questions may add to our understanding about biological factors affecting human sensory perception, evolution and communication.