Perception of rhythmic cues contributes to our understanding of music, conversation, and movement throughout our daily lives. While some features of rhythm perception and production vary in pattern across cultures, many researchers have proposed that musical beat perception and synchronization evolved in humans to support communication and social group formation. Some have predicted that impairments in beat synchronization may also be related to speech-language disorders that are associated with conversational rhythms. While several theories on these associations exist, the connection between rhythmic comprehension and genetics remained largely unexplored.
To understand this link, researchers from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward New Innovator Award initiative conducted Genome-Wide Association Studies, or GWAS, in over 600,000 consenting volunteers who submitted their genetic sample to 23andMe for testing and answered a “yes” response to a questionnaire asking if they had the ability to keep a beat in time with a given musical rhythm. The researchers also conducted validation studies, asking a smaller pool of research participants to recognize similar rhythmic patterns and to tap along with the beat of music. Based on this information, the researchers identified 69 different locations in the human genome that account for self-reported beat synchronization. These genes were more likely to be found in areas associated with central nervous system function, including brain tissue, and early brain development. Additionally, genes associated with beat synchronicity overlapped with genetic patterns of other traits, including those involved in biological rhythms, such as walking and breathing, as well as genes active in areas of the brain associated with motor skills and timing.
When taken together, these study results suggest a connection between the ability to understand and follow along with rhythmic cues and genes active in the brain that begin during fetal development. This study may serve as an important step forward in understanding the connection of our genetic code to musicality and body movement that can serve as a building block for future studies aimed at comprehending the complex interactions of genes and rhythm cues in our day-to-day life.
Are you curious about the ethics of using personal genome information in basic research studies? Read more about the way in which this research was conducted here, as well as a commentary from the authors on the ethical and social impacts of the study of genetics and musicality here.
- Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity. Niarchou M, Gustavson DE, Sathirapongsasuti JF, Anglada-Tort M, Eising E, Bell E, McArthur E, Straub p, 23 and Me Research Team, McAuley JD, Capra JA, Ullén F, Creanza N, Mosing MA, Hinds DA, Davis LK, Jacoby N, Gordon RL. Nature Human Behaviour. 2022 Jun 16. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x. PMID: 35710621