May 19, 2008
Study Finds Genetic Component Of Musical Aptitude

Before spending a lot of money on piano and singing lessons some day parents will be able to get their kids genetically tested to check for musically inclined genetic profiles. Why waste all that money on a kid who might turn out to be innately tone deaf? A fairly preliminary study in Finland finds evidence for a genetic component to musical ability.

Molecular and statistical genetic studies in 15 Finnish families have shown that there is a substantial genetic component in musical aptitude. Musical aptitude was determined using three tests: a test for auditory structuring ability (Karma Music test), and the Seashore pitch and time discrimination subtests. The study represents the first systematic molecular genetic study that aims in the identification of candidate genes associated with musical aptitude.

The identified regions contain genes affecting cell extension and migration during neural development. Interestingly, an overlapping region previously associated with genetic locus for dyslexia was found raising a question about common evolutionary background of music and language faculties. The results show that musical aptitude is likely to be regulated by several predisposing genes/variants.

“The identification of genes/genetic variants involved in mediating music perception and performance would offer new tools to understand the role of music in human brain function, human evolution and its relationship to language faculty”, says the leader of the study, Dr. Irma Järvelä from the University of Helsinki.

While this study did not identify specific genetic variants as causes of differences in musical ability that level of detail will not be a long time in coming. The continued rapid decline in genetic sequencing costs will make complete personal genetic sequencing affordable in the 2010s. The resulting flood of genetic sequencing data will make identification of genetic causes of cognitive abilities far easier to do than is the case today.

By the year 2035 I expect enhanced musical ability to become a very popular option for parents making genetic engineering decisions in the design of their children.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 May 19 09:02 AM  Brain Genetics

David Friedman said at May 19, 2008 11:43 AM:

You will be happy to know that, anticipating such results, my family has been engaged in a three generation long project to breed musical ability back into my father's descendants.

My father, by my mother's account, once learned a song well enough so that he could tell if a tune was that song or wasn't--that was the outer limit of his talent. He, however, married my mother, who is musical.

I can readily recognize tunes but am tone mute--I cannot sing. I, however, married two wives (consecutively, not simultaneously) both of whom were musical. All of the resulting children are more musical than I am--admittedly damning with faint praise. My daughter, in particular, is an enthusiastic harp player.

My elder son married a musical wife. We eagerly await the point at which their son is old enough so that we can observe the results of the experiment.

I expect it will take another few generations to get us into opera or a symphony orchestra.

Randall Parker said at May 19, 2008 12:10 PM:


I am impressed by your family's willingness to pursue projects with such long term pay-offs. This speaks well of your discount rates. At the same time, the length of time it is taking your family to achieve the goal of substantial musical ability argues for the development of much faster ways to boost musical ability. Luckily we are getting quite close to the discovery of methods to speak up breeding for musicality.

Aron said at May 19, 2008 12:20 PM:

Y'know as we get closer and closer to Gattaca I have the mixed emotion of not personally being able to benefit from it. I want some kind of in situ musical augmentation. Folks still say I rush the cadenza in the Rach 3. :(

Brock said at May 19, 2008 1:57 PM:

"Why waste all that money on a kid who might turn out to be innately tone deaf?"

Because no one is innately tone deaf. The differences are whether you have the faculty naturally or need to learn it (preferably before the age of 7). The fact that hardly a single person who learns a tonal language (such as Mandarin) as a child is tone deaf is pretty conclusive.

Besides, not only are there many benefits to musical practice regardless of the level of skill you acquire, I have many hobbies I enjoy even though I don't practice them at the professional level. I certainly hope parents don't forgo piano lessons solely on a lack of natural aptitude.


"By the year 2035 I expect enhanced musical ability to become a very popular option for parents making genetic engineering decisions in the design of their children."

I guess that depends on the tradeoffs, no?

Rob said at May 20, 2008 7:38 AM:

Lots of people claim that learning tonal languages prevents tone-deafness and ups the likelihood of perfect pitch, but do have data for say third generation Chinese-Americans or whites who learned Mandarin as children to determine whether or not Asians are just less likely to be tone deaf and more likely to have perfect pitch?

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