Is musical ability genetic?

As this is my first post, I’ll start with some basic definitions: 1) pitch perception: determined by the basilar membrane in your ear, human hearing ranges lie from 20 to 20,000 Hz. Our perception of pitch is influenced by the sound’s duration and intensity; we can recognize melodies played by instruments, sung by voice, or generated artificially 2) pitch encoding: the human brain encodes pitch similarly to how it encodes languages, using harmonics to identify sounds “higher” or “lower” than another. There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding how neurons in the auditory complex encode pitch 3) pitch reproduction: vocalizing a pitch.

The aim of our research lies not in the neuroscience of pitch but in the mathematical accuracy of vocalized pitch – can humans create mathematically perfect pitch, like autotune can? Can it be repeated replicated accurately? Do our ears perceive one pitch as being more mathematically precise than another?

I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring the phenomenon of the genetics of musicality and if we genetically inherit pitch or if we must repeatedly practice to learn/improve our sense of pitch. Musical aptitude is thought to be a behavioral trait affected by genetics and environmental factors, such as education, language, and culture. It is suggested that musical aptitude is affected by a combination of genes involved in the auditory pathway: “the perception of music starts with specialised hair cells in the inner ear, which transmit sounds as electronic signals through the auditory pathway to the auditory cortex, where sounds are primarily recognized. In addition to simple sensory perception, the processing of music has been shown to affect multiple other regions of the brain that play a role in emotion, learning and memory” (Academy of Finland, 2014). Some individuals are capable of impacting their musicality while others are not, suggesting a genetic predisposition to musical aptitude.

Comments

  1. Hey!

    As a neuroscience major, I was immediately intrigued by your project. Basically anything investigating nature versus nurture, which you are clearly doing, is fascinating to read about, at least in my opinion, as there are so many conflicting views and new evidence proving different theories.

    I was also wondering if you guys were possibly exploring the relationship between math and musical abilities? I guess this could be in terms of genetics or environmental factors (from your viewpoint probably more genetics in terms of the pathways to the brain). This arises from a personal experience- I am not very musically inclined nor do I have any family history of excellence in musical endeavors, but due to my being “good” at math I have found that I can more easily learn to play instruments, specifically the piano, due to the spacing of the keys etc.

    Can’t wait to hear about your findings!

    Thanks,
    Sarah

  2. Alex Granato says:

    This sounds like a really cool subject of study! I must admit, I am a bit of a cultural anthropology buff so I tend to be of the “Nurture over Nature” mentality, but it seems like genetic potential in musicality has a lot of possibility. Honestly, it has me wondering if perhaps musical aptitude is genetic, but has clustered in groups with higher levels of education and access due to intra-status marrying and reproduction.