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Homo musicus

"A new Finnish research project is seeking to shed more light on the biological background to musical aptitude. A pioneering study at international level, it aims to understand the biology and evolution of human cognitive functions in music."


Tapiola Sinfonietta musicians. Photo: Kari Sarkkinen

BY Jaani Länsiö & Anu Ahola

A new Finnish research project is seeking to shed more light on the biological background to musical aptitude. A pioneering study at international level, it aims to understand the biology and evolution of human cognitive functions in music.

Music research in the past few years has produced a wealth of new information about the perception of sounds, the processes predisposing the brain to music, and the link between music and emotions. We know that music can send shivers down our spine or bring tears to our eyes. We know which lobe of the brain is at work when we commit notes to paper or whistle a tune.

A research project launched jointly by the University of Helsinki and the Sibelius Academy in 2003 and funded by the Academy of Finland is going one step further by addressing the smallest details of the human system, our genes. The results indicate that musical aptitude is a gift handed down from one generation to the next in the same way as height or intelligence.

“But that doesn’t explain everything, of course,” says Dr Liisa Ukkola-Vuoti, whose doctoral dissertation of 2013 is part of the big research project. “We also have to allow for the environmental factor, and dozens if not hundreds of genes.”


Blood tests, questionnaires and music

The most recent study of musical aptitude analysed the genetic variation of 767 members of 76 families. In addition to giving a blood sample, each person taking part in the experiment filled in a questionnaire and did a listening test involving pitch, note lengths and musical structures. The subjects ranged in age from 7 to over 90.

We humans identify musical sounds using the hair cells in the cochlea of the inner ear that transform the sound into electrical signals. From the inner ear, the signals pass to the auditory cortex. The researchers identified nine regions in the human genome that correlate with musical aptitude with a probability of more than 50 per cent. The genes affecting the development of the cochlear hair cells and the inferior colliculus are located in these regions. Some of these genes affect the function of the amygdala and the hippocampus.

The AVPR1A gene previously observed as associating with affection, commitment and social bonding was, furthermore, found to be contributing to musical aptitude. This being the case, people from musical families can well be expected to possess all these characteristics.

Though the tests did not measure the subject’s ability to sing or other creative musical skills, the replies to the questionnaire did indicate a correlation between creativity and the AVPR1A gene.

The subjects were also asked whether they composed, improvised or arranged music. Some replied that though they did not compose, they did write music on the side. This, according to Dr Liisa Ukkola-Vuoti, says more about their modesty. The level of the subjects’ creativity was not assessed in measuring their musical aptitude.

After analysing the data, the research team came to the conclusion that the subjects with certain genes would be more likely to get high scores in the listening tests. These persons also considered themselves musical or had an active interest in music.


Next step

Following the study of families, the next study in the music project is to determine which of our genes react to listening to music and in what way, and which are activated or inactivated when professional musicians play in a concert.

A listening test carried out on 48 subjects will, it is hoped, also yield information on the mechanisms at play at molecular level in music therapy. In the first study the participants listened to music for 20 minutes and in the second for two hours. RNA blood samples were taken before and afterwards and the results compared. The subjects were asked to avoid listening to or actively making music before the test, during which they listened to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K216.

A study of the effect of performing music was made in collaboration with professional players from the Tapiola Sinfonietta. The subjects were violinists and cellists, who have as a rule been playing ever since childhood and have thus been strongly ‘exposed’ to music. Blood samples were taken before and after a concert, and the results were then compared.

The results of this last stage of the research into musical aptitude are at present being analysed and are scheduled for publication by Christmas 2014. “We’re expecting some exciting results,” says the project’s leader, Associate Professor Irma Järvelä.


But what IS musical aptitude?

Neither composers nor philosophers can fully answer that question, and Merriam-Webster does not leave us much the wiser. According to this dictionary, musicality is “sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music”. We still have to define what we mean by “music”, but let us leave that for the semanticists.

Research seeking to identify genetic variants predisposing for music perception and practice (the “musical gene”) clearly confined musical aptitude to an ability to perceive differences in pitch and note length, and musical phrases. This ability was determined by tests devised specifically by Kai Karma and Carl Seashore in this project (The Auditory Structuring Ability Test: 2007; Pitch and Time Discrimination Subtests: 1960). Similar tests have been used for years in the entrance exams for music colleges.

Many scholars nevertheless regard musical aptitude as being strongly culture-specific, and not in any way as an attribute measurable in terms of numbers. The Western drummer may be completely stumped by even simple African rhythms, and the master Indian singer may be rendered speechless by a Western minor chord in creating a harmonic web of sound. In Finland, research into musical traits has been conducted this century by such scholars as Professor emeritus Timo Leisiö from the University of Tampere, according to whom anyone who can speak is in principle musical. This is also the belief of voice teacher Ava Numminen, whose doctoral dissertation of 2012 may be summarised in one sentence: anyone can sing.

Not even the geneticists claim that musicality is purely a question of genes; for research has proved that environmental factors account for about as much as 50 per cent.

“Musical aptitude only comes out when someone is exposed to music,” stresses Associate Professor Irma Järvelä. “The environment and the ambient musical culture are major influences. In biological terms, music is primitive sound, and both humans and animals communicate with sounds. The evolution of the human brain has permitted the development of art music. Timo Leisiö and I both agree on that.”

Indeed, Professor Järvelä hopes that more and more interdisciplinary research may in future be carried out into music perception and practice. Biological and cultural research need not conflict in addressing musical aptitude. Rather, by combining research findings of different types, we may acquire a greater understanding of ourselves and the culture we create – in this case music.


The genetic basis of musical aptitude research project

A research project conducted jointly by the University of Helsinki and the Sibelius Academy and funded by the Academy of Finland was launched in 2003. The research team is addressing musical aptitude from various angles, using the latest methods of genomics research. Examination of the manifestation of genes provides direct access to the level at which genes function, thus bypassing investigation of, for example, brain structure.

Leading the project is Associate Professor Irma Järvelä. Also taking part have been Dr Liisa Ukkola-Vuoti, Jaana Oikkonen, MA, Adjunct Professor Päivi Onkamo, and a team led by Professor Veronica Vieland from Columbia University, Ohio (statistics). Serving as the experts on musical aptitude are Professor emeritus Kai Karma, Dr Pirre Raijas and Dr Tuire Kuusi.

The studies of the manifestation and regulation of genes are being conducted by Chakravarthi Kanduri, MSc, and Preethy Nair, MSc. The expert on the new bioinformatics applications is Professor Harri Lähdesmäki from Aalto University.

The study was published in the Molecular Psychiatry in February 2014.


Jaani Länsiö’s family has worked in music for three generations now. Once upon a time Anu Ahola took the entrance exam at a music academy and afterwards decided to concentrate on writing about music.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo