“A Crosstalk between Genes and the Environment is also Present in Music”

(March 27th, 2015) Does listening to music affect gene expression? Are you a born musician? Irma Järvelä, Associate Professor in Medical Molecular Genetics at the University of Helsinki, Finland, tries to find answers. Isabel Torres spoke to her about Mozart, transcriptomics and Jazz.

Would Mozart have become a great composer if his family had not encouraged his musical career? Irma Järvelä is a clinical geneticist at the University of Helsinki, investigating the molecular genetics of musical traits. After devoting 25 years of her career to the identification of genes and mutations involved in human diseases, she now works in close collaboration with bioinformaticians and music educators to study the influence of genes and the cultural environment on music perception and production.

LT: What got you interested in studying the genetics of musical talent?

We were studying a lot of things that affect human diseases and I found that it’s also important to understand how the normal human brain functions. This could be helpful to understand the diseases in more detail. In genetics, we have genes and then we have environmental effects. […] Our genes do not always tolerate our environment - when you think of carcinogenics, for example - and this kind of crosstalk between genes and the environment is also present in music. […] I was interested in this interaction between the environment and studying music, or listening to music.

LT: Your research shows that several genes involved in inner ear development and auditory neurocognitive processes are linked to musical aptitude. Does this mean musical talent is innate?

Yes, our recent study points to the genes that are associated strongly with an innate, or inborn, musical aptitude. It was already known before that newborns are interested in very complex musical patterns already at the age of a couple of days, and from research studying human brain function in musicians and non-musicians, there is evidence that music is a biological trait. In our study, we identify the regions in the human genome that are strongly associated with the ability to perceive and listen to sounds and structures in music.

LT: So do ‘musical geniuses’ really exist? Would Mozart have become a great composer if his family hadn’t encouraged his musical training?

Mozart is a typical example of a talented composer whose family was musical. There are a lot of families with several professional musicians, so part of the musical talent is explained by the genes but, of course, also by exposure to music. It’s like an allergy; the risk for an allergy is only expressed when the pollen is coming, so you need this environmental trigger. And music is an excellent environmental trigger. Children, who have an ability for music have to be exposed to music, otherwise we don’t know whether they can become musicians. So a rich musical environment is needed.

LT: Is it possible to compensate for the lack of genetic musical ability with musical training?

I think it can be compensated to some extended but never fully. […] Some researchers have claimed (and I agree) that children first of all inherit the ability to perceive music and hear music. And if the parents are also very musical and good teachers, that is the ideal setting for the transmission of both the genes and the perfect environment.

LT: Are there also examples of musically talented people that don’t come from a family of musicians?

We have a couple of cases in our family collection which consists of 800 people in Finland where the parents are not very interested in music but the child is very talented. Also vice versa, we also have cases where the parents are professional musicians but the children are not at all interested or their musical scores are moderate or low.

LT: How do you explain these exceptions?

I think it’s possible that these cases are explained by a novel mutation because the human genome is supposed to have de novo mutations quite frequently. But we cannot say anything concerning just a couple of cases; these kinds of studies are not reliable. We would need more cases.

LT: In another recent study you show that listening to classical music affects gene expression in musically experienced, but not inexperienced, individuals...

Yes, this is true. We had a group of participants who were professional musicians or experienced listeners [of classical music], and in the other group the participants told us they were not so interested in music. The participants were not informed, which music they came to listen […]. Some people would come out and say “yeah, I know this music, this was nice”, and of course those who had no musical experience didn’t know what was played. […] If you think about it people always choose what they like. We saw an effect in people who knew the music, or who were used to listening to classical music.

LT: Do you see this effect on gene expression with any type of music?

I don’t know because this is the first study and you have to start somewhere. This was with classical music but I agree that we should study other genres like jazz or hip hop, or whatever other type of music. I would suggest that jazz would be the next one because imagination, improvisation and creativity in jazz are more prominent and we might get some different effect. I think there might be shared effects and non-shared effects.

LT: What other questions would you like to address in the future?

We are currently studying the genes for creativity in music, and this will hopefully be published this year. We have just published a paper on the genetic profiles of professional musicians, just before and after they played a fabulous symphonette at a concert. […] Then we want to look at the different musical genres, and gene regulation and evolution of music.

Interview: Isabel Torres

Images: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Frits Ahlefeldt, I. Järvelä

Last Changes: 05.05.2015