Keeping to the beat controlled by 69 genes – not just our feet

Are we slaves to the rhythm, or our genetics?

Are you a dancing queen or do you have two left feet? Turns out that keeping to the beat is partly to do with our genetics.

An international team of researchers conducted a study on the genetic variation of 606,825 individuals, all of whom completed a musical ability questionnaire (including “Can you clap in time with a musical beat?”), with some also participating in beat synchronisation experiments including telling rhythms apart (Phenotype Experiment 1) and tapping in time with music (Phenotype Experiment 2).

Of the participants, 91.57% said yes to the question, “Can you clap in time with a musical beat?” Those who said yes also scored higher in the rhythm perception and tapping synchrony experiments.  

Looking at the genetic variation, 69 genes showed significant difference between the rhythmic and arhythmic participants, with VRK2 being the most strongly associated. This gene has been linked previously to behavioural and psychiatric traits (including depression, schizophrenia and developmental delay), suggesting a biological link between beat synchronisation and neurodevelopment.

Several physiology traits also seemed to be linked to beat synchronisation, including processing speed, grid strength, usual walking pace, and peak respiratory flow. These may be linked to the evolution of language and sociality through music in early humans.

For modern humans, our ability to keep the beat may help to predict developmental speech-language disorders, and serve as a mechanism for rhythm-based rehabilitation, including for stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

This study has been published in Nature Human Behaviour.

We got the beat… well maybe some of us!

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah holds a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honours degree in palaeontology from Flinders University.

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