Science & Technology

Do we need ‘music in our genes’ to be exceptional? Not always, shows Beethoven’s DNA analysis

A person's genetic predisposition to musicality (or the lack of it) is no indicator of their ability

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Wednesday 27 March 2024
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Vintage etching circa late 19th century from iStock

Recent studies on the genetics of musicality has shown that traits such as pitch perfection and beat synchronisation are indeed influenced by our gene architecture. But a new study illustrated just how loosely bound these hereditary markers are with musical acumen.

A group of scientists recently reported that the German musical genius Ludwig von Beethoven had a rather poor genetic predisposition to beat synchronisation, a key component of a person’s rhythmic ability. Beat synchronisation refers to the human ability to tap to a musical beat.

They concluded this based on an analysis of the 19th century composer’s genome extracted from his hair strands for a previous research. 

The new study was done by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Max Planck Institutes for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

The researchers used genotype data from 8,344 individuals (5,648 with musical achievement data) from the Swedish Twin Registry’s STAGE cohort and 6,150 individuals from Vanderbilt’s BioVU cohort. 

Previously, a large study had established that beat synchronisation was a polygenic trait, which means it is influenced by a multitude of genetic factors and dismissed the idea of a dedicated gene for rhythm. “Beat synchronisation exhibited a highly polygenic architecture, with 69 loci reaching genome-wide significance,” according to the 2022 report published in Nature Human Behaviour. 

Thus, for the new study, the international group of scientists looked at the ‘polygenic score’ of the trait for beat synchronisation. They compared this score from Beethoven’s genome sequence with that of population groups studied. 

Beethoven’s polygenetic indices for predisposition to beat synchronisation ranged from 9th to 11th percentile compared to the people studied. 

The result, though not unexpected by scientists, is still remarkable considering that his symphonies had significant percussive qualities and were rhythmically rather complex. Experts have also found traces of rhythms common in complex German folk dance forms in the maestro’s compositions. 

The results demostrate the fact that genetic evaluation of human traits, in its present form, cannot be a good indicator of a person’s actual abilities. “The mismatch between the DNA-based prediction and Beethoven's musical genius provides a valuable teaching moment, because it demonstrates that DNA tests cannot give us a definitive answer about whether a given child will end up being musically gifted,” said Tara Henechowicz, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and the paper’s second author.

This does not dismiss the advances made in establishing a correlation between musicality and genes, the researchers noted. Musicality has an average heritability of 42 per cent, previous studies have established. Average heritability is the proportion of individual differences explained by all genetic factors, the authors noted. Some reports highlighted the role environment plays in influencing traits along with genetics. 

The aim of the research was to demonstrate the challenges of “making genetic predictions for an individual that lived over 200 years ago,” according to first author Laura Wesseldijk from the Max Planck Institutes for Empirical Aesthetics.

Interestingly, the 2022 report had also established genetic links between beat synchronisation and enhanced breathing function, greater grip strength, faster walking pace and faster processing speed. “Poor beat synchronization could be tied to certain health risks during ageing, in light of other genetic and epidemiological work showing that lung function decline predicts later declines in motor function and psychomotor speed in older adults,” the authors noted. 

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