Tapping, Clapping, Dancing: The Genetic Architecture of Rhythm
When we hear a beat, we tend to move our bodies to it automatically. Is this tendency to move in time with musical rhythm genetically determined? An international research team involving Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) in Frankfurt am Main decided to investigate this question. The results of their extensive study, which included more than 600,000 research participants, have recently been published as an open-access article in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Representing ten research institutions in six countries, the interdisciplinary team consisted of experts in complex genetics, music cognition, evolutionary biology, evolution, music, and neuroscience*. Together with the biotech company 23andMe, Inc. (Sunnyvale, USA), they conducted the first large-scale genome-wide association study of a musical trait.
In all, 606,825 research participants reported on whether they could clap in time with a musical beat. To test the reliability of these self-reports, the researchers, led by Nori Jacoby of MPIEA, conducted a series of online experiments with a separate, smaller group of study participants using a new technology for measuring real-time tapping responses (REPP). While the participants listened to music via their own computers at home, the team used the computer microphones to record their tapping responses and determine exactly when they tapped in relation to the musical beat.
Jacoby elaborates: “The human ability to move in time with musical beat is called beat synchronization. Our validation experiments showed that participants’ self-assessments matched the beat synchronization that was objectively measured. The data obtained from the large sample was therefore reliable—although we were only assessing one question.”
The sizeable research dataset gave the scientists an opportunity to detect even small genetic signals. They were thus able to identify 69 independent genetic variants associated with beat synchronization. What this makes clear is that having a sense of rhythm is influenced by far more than just a single gene.
As it turns out, many of these genetic variants are located in or near genes involved in neuronal function and early brain development. The researchers also found that beat synchronization has some of the same genetic structures involved in biological rhythms such as walking or breathing. In addition, they discovered associations with a number of traits related to aging, such as lung function and motor ability.
“As we see with other complex traits, there are many genes of small effect—likely more than we could identify here—which together only partially account for differences in people’s capacities for rhythm; environment also plays a crucial role,” says Miriam A. Mosing of the MPIEA.
The study’s findings represent a major advance in our understanding of the links between genomics and musicality, but they preclude any deterministic conclusions.
To make sure the results are interpreted in a responsible way the authors align with other collaborators engaged in a companion paper discussing the societal and ethical implications, risks and possibilities enabled by this study (https://psyarxiv.com/dyn6e/).
This research was supported in part by an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (#DP2HD098859).
* This paper was led by Maria Niarchou (1). Senior authors were Lea K. Davis (1, 2), Nori Jacoby (3) and Reyna L. Gordon (1, 2).
Full list of authors:
Maria Niarchou (1), Daniel E. Gustavson (1), J. Fah Sathirapongsasuti (4), Manuel Anglada-Tort (3), Else Eising (5), Eamonn Bell (6, 7), Evonne McArthur (1), Peter Straub (1), 23andMe Research Team (4), J. Devin McAuley (8), John A. Capra (9), Fredrik Ullén (3, 10), Nicole Creanza (2), Miriam A. Mosing (3, 10, 11), David A. Hinds (4), Lea K. Davis (1, 2), Nori Jacoby (3), and Reyna L. Gordon (1, 2)
1: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA; 2: Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA; 3: Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt am Main, Germany; 4: 23andMe, Inc, Sunnyvale, CA, USA; 5: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands; 6: Columbia University, New York, NY, USA; 7: Durham University, Durham, UK; 8: Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA; 9: University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA; 10: Karolinska Institutet, Solna, Sweden; 11: University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Niarchou, M., Gustavson, D. E., Sathirapongsasuti, J. F., Anglada-Tort, M., Eising, E., Bell, E., McArthur, E., Straub, P., 23andMe Research Team, McAuley, J. D., Capra, J. A., Ullén, F. U., Creanza, N., Mosing, M. A., Hinds, D. A., Davis, L. K., Jacoby, N., & Gordon, R. L. (2022). Genome-Wide Association Study of Musical Beat Synchronization Demonstrates High Polygenicity. Nature Human Behaviour. Advance online publication. doi:10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x