69 distinct genetic variations associated with the ability to keep in time with a musical beat (also called beat synchronization ability) have been discovered by an international team of researchers. The researchers published their study, which included more than 600,000 participants, in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
The majority of people are able to keep time to a beat, as demonstrated by their ability to clap in time with the drummer during a rock song. However, not everyone has this talent. In this new study, the researchers investigated whether there were genes responsible for the ability for rhythm, hypothesizing that genetic variations might explain why some people had difficulty keeping time. They began by asking the participants: “Can you clap in sync with a musical beat?”. The answer was “yes” in 91.57% of the 606,825 participants. Some of the participants were also asked to participate in beat-measuring tasks, such as tapping a keyboard key in rhythm with a song’s beat. The researchers found that participants who responded positively to the first question also performed better in similar tests.
The participants were then included in a broad genome-wide association study (GWAS) to find the genetic regions linked to bat synchronization. They found 69 genes involved in beat synchronization that differed between those who could keep a beat and those who could not. Additionally, they discovered that the gene VRK2 seemed to be the most significant. Further, they discovered that individuals who identified as musicians tended to have more variants, indicating that variations might have a positive or negative impact on people’s sense of rhythm. People with VRK2 variants have also been linked to a number of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and persistent depression, according to earlier studies.
The researchers also discovered that maintaining a beat involves genes other than those required to perceive the timing of a beat, such as walking speed, respiratory flow, and the processing speed of certain brain regions. They also suggest the ability to keep a beat might be linked to childhood speech development and social interactions.
The study represents a substantial advancement in our understanding of the genomic basis of a musicality phenotype.
Niarchou M et al. Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity. Nat Hum Behav (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x