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

A person’s genetic predisposition to musicality (or lack thereof) is not indicative of their ability

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Vintage engraving circa late 19th century from iStock

Recent studies on the genetics of musicality have shown that traits such as pitch refinement and rhythm synchronization are indeed influenced by our genetic architecture. But a new study illustrated how loosely these hereditary markers are linked to musical acuity.

A group of scientists recently reported that the German musical genius Ludwig von Beethoven had a genetic predisposition weak enough to defeat synchronization, a key component of a person’s rhythmic ability. Rhythm synchronization refers to the human ability to tap into a musical beat.

They came to this conclusion based on an analysis of the 19th-century composer’s genome extracted from strands of his hair for earlier research.

The new study was conducted by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Max Planck Institute 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 STAGE cohort of the Swedish Twin Registry and 6,150 individuals from Vanderbilt’s BioVU cohort.

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

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

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

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

The results demonstrate the fact that genetic assessment of human traits, in its current form, cannot be a good indicator of a person’s actual abilities. “The discrepancy between DNA-based prediction and Beethoven’s musical genius provides a valuable teaching moment because it shows that DNA tests cannot give us a definitive answer as to whether a given child will end up being musically gifted, ” said Tara Henechowicz, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto and second author of the paper.

This does not negate the progress made in establishing a correlation between musicality and genes, the researchers noted. Musicality has an average heritability of 42 percent, previous studies have shown. Average heritability is the proportion of individual differences explained by all genetic factors, the authors noted. Several reports emphasized the role that environment plays in influencing traits along with genetics.

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

Interestingly, the 2022 report also established genetic links between heartbeat synchronization and improved respiratory function, greater grip strength, faster walking pace, and faster processing speed. “Poor beat synchronization may be associated with several health risks during aging in light of other genetic and epidemiological work showing that decline in lung function predicts later decline in motor function and psychomotor speed in older adults.” the authors noted.

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