Multiple regions in the human genome are reported to be linked to musical aptitude, according to a study published in Molecular Psychiatry. The function of the candidate genes implicated in the study ranges from inner-ear development to auditory neurocognitive processes, suggesting that musical aptitude is affected by a combination of genes involved in the auditory pathway. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland.

The perception of music starts with specialised hair cells in the inner ear, which transmit sounds as electronic signals through the auditory pathway to the auditory cortex, where sounds are primarily recognised. In addition to simple sensory perception, the processing of music has been shown to affect multiple other regions of the brain that play a role in emotion, learning and memory.

The genomes of 767 people, belonging to 76 families characterised by the ability to discriminate pitch, duration and sound patterns, were analysed for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). The best association was found at chromosome 3 close to the GATA2 gene that regulates the development of cochlear hair cells and the inferior colliculus (IC) in the auditory pathway. The best linkage results were obtained on chromosome 4, which contains five genes, PCHD7, PDGFRA, KCTD8, CHRNA9 and PHOX2B, that all affect inner-ear development and are expressed in amydala or hippocampus. The highest probability of linkage was obtained for pitch perception accuracy next to the protocadherin 7 gene, PCDH7, known to be expressed in cochlear and amygdaloid complexes. Amygdala is the emotional center of the human brain and is reported to be affected by music.

The researchers note that musical aptitude is a complex behavioural trait not fully captured by the sound perception tests used in this study, and that environmental factors, such as culture and music education, likely play an important role here. The findings provide a valuable background for molecular studies and research on the interplay of genes and the environment with respect to musical ability.

The study (A genome-wide linkage and association study of musical aptitude identifies genetic loci containing variants related to inner-ear development and neurocognitive functions) was published in Molecular Psychiatry on 24 February 2014. The principal investigator is Jaana Oikkonen in collaboration with Assistant Professor Päivi Onkamo, University of Helsinki, and Professor Veronica Vieland's group from Columbus University. The experts in musical aptitude are Professor Kai Karma and MuD Pirre Raijas. The responsible researcher of the project is Assistant Professor Irma Järvelä, University of Helsinki.