12 March 2001
ByAppeared in BioNews 098
A new study by a team of UK and US researchers suggests that the ability to recognise musical notes is more influenced by genes than by non-genetic factors. Scientists at the National Institute on Deafness, Maryland and St Thomas's Hospital, London studied the ability of twins to recognise wrong notes in short bursts of popular songs. They estimate that between 70 to 80 per cent of an individual's ability to recognise musical pitch is inherited, while the remainder is influenced by factors such as musical training.
The team studied 136 identical and 148 non-identical twins, recruited from the St Thomas's Twin Registry. When they were asked to identify 'distorted tunes', they found that identical twins (who have identical genes) were far more likely to achieve similar scores than non-identical twins (who share 50 per cent of their genes). Since both types of twins are assumed to share identical family backgrounds, the researchers think that the differences in scores must be mainly down to genes, rather than to differences in upbringing. 'Before I did this study I would have guessed that exposure to music would have been more important than genes' said Dr Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research Centre at St Thomas's.
The study, published in last week's Science, found that one in 20 of the participants was tone deaf, and one in 10 was able to spot all the mistakes. The scientists conclude that musical pitch perception is 'highly heritable', and related to differences in brain function rather than hearing ability. Spector now hopes to investigate the genetic basis of other musical skills such as perceiving rhythm, reports New Scientist.