The Music in Your Genes

The Music in Your Genes

Families have been making music together since long before the von Trapps and the Jackson 5. It’s not uncommon for an accomplished musician to have one or more family members who are also talented with music — and this is no coincidence.

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Genes have an important role to play in determining musical ability. In one study (Mosing M et al, “Practice Does Not Make Perfect: No Causal Effect of Music Practice on Music Ability,” Psychological Science 2014, 25:1785), Miriam Mosing and her colleagues from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden compared the musical skills of 1,211 pairs of adult identical twins and 1,358 pairs of fraternal twins. They tested participants’ ability to detect differences in pitch, distinguish melodies, and recognize rhythms. They found that even when one twin practiced significantly more than the other twin — in one case, 20,228 hours more — their level of musical ability was more or less the same.

An earlier study by researchers at the University of Helsinki (Pulli K et al, “Genome-wide linkage scan for loci of musical aptitude in Finnish families: evidence for a major locus at 4q22,” Journal of Medical Genetics 2008, 45:451-456) reinforces these findings. They tested 224 members of 15 different families of musicians and found that musical ability is 50% inherited.

Several studies have found that human evolution favors people with an ear for music. The abilities that make someone good at music are associated with other crucial life skills. Being more sensitive to pitch and tone, for example, increases your ability to distinguish nuances in language and speech and to mimic foreign accents. Studies have shown a significant correlation between musical talent and the ability to learn a foreign language. The aforementioned research by Järvelä showed that the DNA sequences related to musical ability were also linked to dyslexia, indicating that musical ability is closely associated with language development.

A Combination of Nature and Nurture

One of the easiest components of musical ability to measure is absolute pitch, also called “perfect pitch”: the ability to instantly identify the pitch of a note being played. Most musicians need to hear the note played by a tuning fork or another tuned instrument to tune an instrument, using the note as a reference. People with absolute pitch don’t need a tuning fork — they instinctively know whether what they are hearing is an A, G sharp, or B flat.

Studies have shown strong links between genetics and this ability, but that doesn’t mean it’s innate. Our conventions about tones and their names are largely arbitrary. Even a person with perfect pitch can’t name a note before they have learned the musical scale.

The part you inherit from your parents, though, is the potential to learn. Exposure to musical training at a young age, or speaking a tonal language such as Mandarin, makes you more likely to realize this potential.

It works in the opposite direction, too. Research has found a strong genetic component to tone-deafness, or what scientists call “congenital amusia.” It only affects about 4% of the population, but if you are tone-deaf, 39% of your first-degree relatives are likely to have amusia.

Once again, though, it’s not all nature. A twin study found that though one twin being tone-deaf made it very likely that the other twin was tone-deaf too, there were cases where one was tone-deaf and the other wasn’t.

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  • Leonard Smith

    October 22, 2019

    I am tone deaf, I appear to be the only member of my immediate family who is. This is something I have been aware of most of my life. At the age of 11, (I am now 81), my school teacher stopped me from singing at school. I have been researching my family history for some years now, and I have discovered that a large number of my ancestors from my unrelated families were all very musical, some sing and dancing for a living others playing in bands etc. I note your article says that tone deaf people also have trouble with learning other languages, I have also had trouble with this.

  • Julie Sennett

    November 6, 2019

    I am tone deaf, the only one from 7 siblings, my father was musical and played the guitar, he was self taught, my mum use to sing on a Melbourne radio station and sang at local hotel. I have 2 daughters, both musical, the youngest moreso then the eldest. The youngest daughter’s 4 children are all musically inclined.
    I too find it difficult to understand different languages, but I love music and have enjoyed taking part in choirs and dancing.

  • Jack Turchin

    November 21, 2019

    Very interesting. My grandfather….my moms dad…was a drummer in the late 20s at speak easys. Also, my dad played various instruments…not professionally, but he played the bongos, sax and Eukelale.

  • Dave Anderson

    November 21, 2019

    My grandmother seemed to be tone deaf.

    But her two children were definitely not, and I am a musician.

    More about my musical family here:

  • Angela Douglass

    November 22, 2019

    I have perfect pitch, as did my sister. I was a professional musician for 35 years and always wondered where my musical genes came from. Recently I’ve done a study of my maternal grandmother’s family and have found 17 professional musicians – and counting. They include members of the Drury Lane Theatre orchestra in the late 1700s, court musicians, recognised composers, performers in the 19th and 20th centuries and several music teachers. I’m sure I’ll find more as I continue with my research.

  • Ms. Bennie Choate

    November 22, 2019

    Both my husband and I were from musical families, although my husband was not active. I began singing solos in church at age one, beginning a very active music ministry in both singing and playing piano, organ and accordion,and later learning the French horn in the school band. My mom also sang, and most of her six sisters had lovely singing voices, with one or two also playing piano a little. My dad’s family was also musical with both singing and playing guitar. Both my daughters are singers, but my son was tone deaf, even though he loved music and wanted so badly to play an instrument and sing.

  • Cynthia Cornett Carson

    November 22, 2019

    My mother’s father’s family included concert pianists. She could appreciate and identify music but was herself unable to carry a tune or speak a language other than English. She seemed quite oblivious to singing way off fune. My father had musicians in his family, his father played the piano and sang, but he could not carry a tune or even whistle a tune if his life depended on it.

    Neither my brother nor I appear to be affected by their tone deafness, nor do our children who have beautiful voices and learned piano. I have played several instruments and picked up multiple languages with ease.

  • glen king

    November 23, 2019

    My great aunt Henrietta Blanke-Belcher was considered to be the songwriter queen of American Waltz back in the early 1900’s. My great grandmother was Flora Hammerstein, the cousin of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, which makes me related by blood, and my mother was a concert pianist. I am an award winning songwriter with many credits, so I guess I can confirm that (perhaps) musical genes run in a family. .

  • vivien dewe

    November 23, 2019

    my mother was a brilliant pianist and violinist. I do not play an instrument but am a good singer and also was good at languages at school, gaining A levels in latin,,german, and french

  • Jeanette Gilley Maddox

    November 23, 2019

    I would like to know if there is music in my family. I was always told that Micky Gilley was related to me.

  • Lizzie

    November 23, 2019

    Thought you would enjoy this

  • Doreen

    November 23, 2019

    thought you would enjoy this= the fact of the red hair and music/

  • Julie da Graca Moniz Gavilanez-Mastrofine

    November 24, 2019

    Most of my family are musicians or singers. Self taught musicians and singers.

  • Julie da Graca Moniz Gavilanez-Mastrofine

    November 24, 2019

    Most of my family are musicians or singers. Self taught musicians and singers. My uncle had a band “Djicai” and his band. Singer Maria Barros. Great uncle also had a band “Djedjinho”. Some other family members sing and self taught musians. I also can sing, I love music, but I can’t read music notes. Never taken a music class, but I can follow music rythym.

  • gillian Capon-browning

    November 24, 2019

    I have recently been researching my husbands ancestors. And I find that his mothers grandfather was Henry Comyn an actor associate to Sadlers Wells. None of my husbands Brothers were musical, but my eldest son has always been involved in drumming. and my daughters eldest son is very talented both on stage ,he writes music and songs and has a beautiful singing voice, plays the guitar,and piano , and is now studying Classical music at Manchester University .I can only assume that he has inherited it from his fathers side, as my fathers side except for his two sisters who used to play the piano on black notes were not that talented.

  • Silky Sanderson

    November 28, 2019

    My family name is skrzypczak which in polish means fiddler or “he who plays a stringed instrument”. My dad and his brothers were very well established musicians. Father played accordian. Interesting to note is this: my brother was adopted into the family at birth. He is also extremely talented musician. Can pick up an instrument and just play it. He is a wizard on the guitar. Hears a song and can immediately play it back. Make the guitar sing cry howl and any other expression. His family music gene was not inherited biologically. But I am amazed how he was brought to a heritage and fit in to the “Skrzypczak” lineage so perfectly.

  • Lesley Moore

    December 5, 2019

    My piano playing comes from my Mother who played in the silient movies but after marriage & having a family I never heard her play

  • Lois Pritzlaff

    April 11, 2021

    If you play a note on the piano without me looking I can play the same note plus my dad and I could play by ear. What I am wondering is if musical talent can be passed to great-grand children.

  • SS

    Saundra Spera

    September 19, 2021

    I have fraternal twin grandsons. One is tone deaf and cannot find a beat. The other has a great ear for music and plays several instruments.