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Genetics Unzipped podcast: Wired for sound – the genetics of music

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney is getting in harmony with the science of music. Is there a music gene? Does musical talent really run in families? And how does the inability to perceive music impact on daily life? 

Music is a deeply human characteristic – whether it’s clapping, tapping, singing or playing, most of us love to listen – and maybe move – to good tune or a funky beat, and there are plenty of music makers in the world, from schoolkids playing the recorder or making beats on a laptop to virtuoso concert pianists and global pop stars. But where does our musical urge come from? And is it in our genes?

Is there a ‘music gene’?

Kat chats with Reyna Gordon. associate professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab in the Department of Otolaryngology and the Genetics Institute at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. She’s the recipient of a prestigious NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for her work looking at the underlying biology of why rhythm means so much to us, and is applying techniques from genetics and neuroscience to understand more about music, our brains and our genes.

“What’s interesting from a genetics perspective is that we see so many correlations, for example between rhythm and reading,” Reyna explains.

“There are now dozens of studies that have tested people’s reading skills, whether it’s in children or adults, and then have also tested their rhythm by asking them to tap along and synchrony to a beat or to tell whether different rhythmic sequences are the same or different, and these studies generally find a fairly strong correlation. So even though we know that the brain networks for rhythm and for reading are not really that overlapping, there are still these correlations. One possible explanation when we see phenotypic correlations like this is that there are underlying genetic correlations and maybe subsets of genes that influence rhythm that also influence reading.”

The inheritance of amusia, or tone-deafness

Kat also talks with Jasmin Pfeifer, from Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany. A linguist by training, Jasmin has found herself involved in the world of genetics through her studies of a condition called congenital amusia, or hereditary tone-deafness. She’s studying an unusual pair of non-identical twins, where one twin is amusic and the other is not, as well as a family with hereditary amusia, to search for genes involved in the condition.

Jasmin also explains how being amusic can have an impact on daily life, beyond not being able to hear or hold a tune.

“One story that I always like to tell is about an amusic lady that came to me in the lab and she just started crying because she was so desperate,” Jasmin says.

“Apparently her boyfriend or husband at the time was using irony a lot ,and irony strongly depends on intonation. And she never could tell when he meant something in an ironic way. This led to so many arguments that they finally broke up because she just was never able to tell when he meant something and when he didn’t mean it, and he just couldn’t grasp why she wasn’t able to.”

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK
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