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Musical Ability: Twin Study Shows It Is Genetic


musical ability

Musical ability was shown to have a genetic component in a study employing both identical and non-identical twins. Swedish scientists used a test called the Swedish Musical Discrimination Test to assess the discrimination of musical stimuli such as the discrimination of single pitches, rhythms and melodies as a measure of musical ability in the participants of the study. They also asked the subjects questions about their experiences with music, such as whether they took music lessons and how much time they spent practicing. They then compared the results from the two types of twins as an assessment of genetic contributions to musical ability.

The study was led by Dr. Miriam Mosing of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. In the study, they looked at 1,211 pairs of identical twins and 1,358 pairs of non-identical twins. Identical twins share exactly the same DNA and non-identical twins share DNA to the same degree as brothers and sisters who were gestated at different times. Each participant was asked whether they played a musical instrument or engaged in a singing group. They were also asked how many hours a week they practiced.

When the participants were tested for their musical abilities using the Swedish Musical Discrimination Test, they were asked to distinguish between two sequences of four to nine notes, with one sequence being different from the other by one note. The subjects were also asked to determine whether two sequences of five to seven notes with the same tone were played with the same or different time intervals. Expert musicians would be expected to be exceptionally good at these tasks.

The results of the study showed that individuals scored higher if they played a musical instrument  versus those who did not play a musical instrument. As expected, those who had taken music lessons scored higher than those that had not. The total hours of musical training and the scores from the Swedish Musical Discrimination Test were correlated in those that played an instrument.

Regarding the genetic interpretation, the heritability estimate suggested that musical ability has some genetic component in that a set of identical twins will have a greater likelihood to have the same level of musical ability. If a twin in a set practiced significantly more than the other, it did not make a difference. The two twins in the set still scored similarly on the musical ability tests. One set of twins was particularly interesting. Even though there was a great discrepancy between the time they spent practicing (20,228 hours), they still scored at the same level of musical ability on the test as their twin. Another interesting finding was the identical twins had the same attitude toward practicing than the non-identical twins. This implied a stronger genetic component in the identical twins contributing to attitude towards practicing.

Practicing playing music will certainly make someone a better musician. However, practicing may not make someone significantly better at playing music compared to another person if one’s genes are not up to snuff. According to the results from this twin study, the genetic component sets the potential level of music ability and practice is the way to fulfill that potential.

By Margaret Lutze

Personality and Individual Differences

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