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Similar genes may promote human music, bird song

Feb. 26, 2005
Courtesy of the University of Helsinki
and World Science staff

Peo­ple’s in­ter­est in mu­sic may be re­lat­ed to a gene that has al­so been found to be as­so­ci­at­ed with mu­sical ap­ti­tude – and sing­ing in birds, a new study re­ports.

The find­ings al­so add to grow­ing ev­i­dence that mu­sic draws on a sys­tem of brain wir­ing that more gen­erally pro­motes at­tach­ment be­hav­iors, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers, Ir­ma Järvelä of the Uni­vers­ity of Hel­sin­ki and col­leagues.

“The re­sults sug­gest that will­ing­ness to lis­ten to mu­sic is re­lat­ed to neuro­bi­o­log­i­cal path­ways af­fect­ing so­cial af­filia­t­ion and com­mu­nica­t­ion,” they wrote, re­port­ing their find­ings in the Feb. 10 ad­vance on­line edi­tion of the Jour­nal of Hu­man Ge­net­ics.

Mu­sic is part of all known cul­tures, Järvelä and col­league not­ed. Si­m­i­lar­i­ties be­tween hu­man and an­i­mal song have been de­tected, they ar­gue: both con­tain a mes­sage, and an in­ten­tion that re­flects emo­tion­al state and is often in­ter­preted cor­rectly even among dif­fer­ent spe­cies. Sev­er­al mu­sic-re­lat­ed be­hav­iors al­so pro­mote at­tach­ment, they added: lul­la­bies are meant to bond a par­ent with an in­fant, and sing­ing or play­ing mu­sic to­geth­er is based on team­work and may en­hance group co­he­sion. 

The re­search­ers col­lect­ed da­ta on 437 Finns from 31 fam­i­lies, aged eight to 93, with mu­sical education ranging from none to ex­ten­sive. The par­ti­ci­pants were sur­veyed about their mu­sic lis­tening habits and tested in three ways for mu­sical ap­ti­tude. Their DNA was al­so an­a­lyzed.

Will­ing­ness to lis­ten to mu­sic was as­so­ci­at­ed with vari­ants in a gene called ar­gi­nine vas­o­pres­sin re­cep­tor 1A, the invest­i­gators found. The gene serves to help transmit a hormone called ar­gi­nine vas­o­pres­sin in the brain.

The Hel­sin­ki sci­en­tists had al­so found as­socia­t­ion be­tween the same gene and mu­sical ap­ti­tude in find­ings re­ported in the May 2009 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal PLoS One. And the ver­sion of that chem­i­cal known in birds and oth­er spe­cies was found to in­crease dawn sing­ing in male field spar­rows in a study de­scribed in the Au­gust 1998 edi­tion of the jour­nal Hor­mones and Be­hav­ior. Dutch re­search de­tailed in the Eu­ro­pe­an Jour­nal of Phar­ma­col­o­gy for last Jan­u­ary al­so found that ma­ni­pu­lat­ing lev­els of the sub­stance, called va­so­tocin, in song­birds “pro­motes ac­qui­si­tion of a sta­ble ster­e­o­typed song pat­tern.” Va­so­tocin al­so in­flu­ences breed­ing in lizards and fish, Järvelä and col­leagues said.

The re­sults “pro­vide a mo­lec­u­lar ev­i­dence of sound or mu­sic’s role in so­cial com­mu­nica­t­ion, and are pro­vid­ing tools for fur­ther stud­ies on gene-culture ev­o­lu­tion in mu­sic,” the uni­vers­ity said in a sum­mary of the re­search re­leased on Feb. 24.


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People’s interest in music is related to a gene that has also been found to be associated with musical aptitude and – in birds – with singing, a new study reports. The findings also add to growing evidence that music draws on a wider system of brain wiring that promotes attachment behaviors, according to the researchers, Irma Järvelä of the University of Helsinki and colleagues. “The results suggest that willingness to listen to music is related to neurobiological pathways affecting social affiliation and communication,” they wrote, reporting their finding in the Feb. 10 advance online edition of the Journal of Human Genetics. Music is part of all known cultures, Järvelä and colleague noted. Similarities between human and animal song have been detected, they argue: both contain a message, an intention that reflects innate emotional state that is interpreted correctly even among different species. Moreover, several music-related behaviors also promote attachment, they said: lullabies are meant to bond a parent with an infant, and singing or playing music together is based on teamwork and may enhance group cohesion. The researchers collected data on 437 Finns from 31 families, aged eight to 93, with wide range of musical training from none to extensive. The participants were surveyed about their music listening habits and tested in three ways for musical aptitude. Their DNA was also analyzed. The participants reported weekly average “active listening” to music of 4.6 hours and “passive listening” to of 7.3 hours. The study also found that music education, high music test scores and creativity in music tended to add active music listening. Other recent research has shown that tone deafness, absolute pitch, musical aptitude and musical creativity runs in families, according to Järvelä and colleagues. They found that willingness to listen to music and musical education also clustered in some families more than others. Perhaps the key finding, though, was that willingness to listen to music was associated with variants in a gene called arginine vasopressin receptor 1A, they added. The gene promotes the transmission of a brain chemical called arginine vasopressin. The Helsinki scientists had also found association between the same gene and musical aptitude in findings reported in the May 2009 issue of the research journal PloS One. And the version of that chemical known in birds and other species was found to increase dawn singing in male field sparrows in a study described in the August 1998 edition of the journal Hormones and Behavior. Dutch research detailed in the European Journal of Pharmacology for last January also found that manipulating levels of the substance, called vasotocin, in songbirds “promotes acquisition of a stable stereotyped song pattern.” Vasotocin also influences breeding in lizards and fish, Järvelä and colleagues said. The results “provide a molecular evidence of sound or music’s role in social communication, and are providing tools for further studies on gene-culture evolution in music,” the university said in a report on the research released for the public on Feb. 24.