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Vanderbilt University scientists find sense of rhythm is genetic

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Posted at 4:10 PM, Jun 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-18 17:10:40-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center have found genetic links to the ability to move in time to musical rhythm.

A new study led by Vanderbilt Genetics Institute researchers, in collaboration with personal genomics and biotechnology company 23andMe, has found that there are 69 genetic variants associated with the ability to move in sync with a beat.

“Tapping, clapping and dancing in synchrony with the beat — the pulse — of music is at the core of our human musicality,” said Reyna Gordon, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery and co-director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab.

The study is the first large-scale genome-wide association study of a musical trait.

“Rhythm is not just influenced by a single gene — it is influenced by many hundreds of genes,” Gordon said.

Many of the genetic variants associated with beat synchronization are in or near genes involved in neural function and early brain development.

The study also found that beat synchronization shares some of the same genetic architecture involved in biological rhythms such as walking, breathing and sleeping.

“Musical beat processing has intriguing links to other aspects of cognition including speech processing and plays a key role in the positive effect of music on certain neurological disorders, including on gait in Parkinson's disease,” said Aniruddh D. Patel, professor of Psychology at Tufts University, an expert not involved in the study.

Data from more than 600,000 consenting research participants was used, thanks to 23andMe's large research dataset.

“Using such a large dataset allows researchers to find new insights into the biology and evolutionary foundations of musicality. While recent years have seen a growth in neuroscientific and developmental work on beat processing, the current study takes the biological study of beat processing to a new level,” Patel added.