The Music Is In Your Genes
June 27, 2014

The Music Is In Your Genes

I love music.

Even now, as I write this, I am listening to a Gregorian cover of Mad World on my Spotify account. Music is such an integral part of our lives that I cannot imagine going a single day without it. Everyone has their thing; their one thing that they are not sure how they could go without, and mine is certainly music. After all, music is something that can bring people together like nothing else can. It is one of the few unifying factors of all humankind.

Unfortunately, I have never really had much of a talent for music. My mother is incredibly gifted on the piano, which she tried to pass to me. It did not take. I have also attempted the clarinet back in school, and I absolutely detested that thing, and the keyboard. No go. A combination of the frustration of not being able to understand what it is I am doing with not a lot of practice in an endless, repeating cycle. Frustration makes me not want to practice which then makes me more frustrated with it when I do and so on and so on. I have helped write a couple of songs before, focusing on the lyrics while someone else handled the music, but aside from that I have had no real connection to the world of music. Honestly, I am fine with that. I take enough pleasure in simply listening to it.

Studies have recently shown that a true talent for music might come from more than just practice. According to Michigan State University professor of psychology Zach Hambrick, a person’s genetics and environment work together in order to help people become accomplished musicians. In looking at the question of “nature vs. nurture,” in this case it is actually both.

In his study, which included 850 sets of twins, Hambrick saw that the drive to practice was fueled party by genetics. This was established by comparing identical twins with fraternal ones. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes with one another while fraternal twins share only 50 percent. Their findings suggest that it is indeed genetics that influence the sort of activities we choose to pursue. Additionally, the study showed that accomplished musicians practice much more than others, which should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, the old saying “practice makes perfect” does exist for a reason. When it comes to musical accomplishment, Hambrick found that genes do play a much greater role than previously thought, as they may be a determining factor on who practices and who does not.

There are many people out there who would argue that experts in music, or any field, are made rather than born and that any lack of innate ability or advantage can be overcome with enough training and practice. Even past research has pointed to somewhere around 10,000 hours of practice being needed to master a craft. However, this new study challenges that theory by illustrating how genes have a very significant contribution on musicians who practice and become successful, pointing out that for those who did not practice there was essentially no genetic contribution. According to Hambrick, “we found that genes become more important in accounting for differences across people in music performance as they practice.”

Overall, this study shows that the argument of nature vs. nurture might not be as cut and dry, as many people believe. Rather than one or the other, in this situation and who knows how many others, it is both.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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