Genetically characterising the willingness to listen to music

I’m here because ‘cos my genes told me to be. The opportunity to snort my body-weight in drugs has nothing to do with it

In the run up to the release of I, Science’s Spring 2011 issue on the 11th March, you must excuse me for my lack of blog posts in the past fortnight.

Andrew and I have trawled through the pages of the latest issue. After a final round of checks and corrections, we finally sent it off the printers last night. We typically like to keep the issue and its contents under wraps until the print release, but let me divulge some information now.

Our highly-regarded writer, Camila Ruz, has written a piece about genetic variability in Major Histocompatability Complexes (MHCs) as a factor in finding the best person to have wild unprotected sex with (or in technical terms, produce offspring). The variability is a genetic driver in the sexual selection of humans, and in that, it is unseen science: our theme for this issue.

The reason I specifically mention Camila’s article is because it epitomises what I love about science. Scientific research characterises and formulates the things we take for granted in life. A qualified founding has been given to the things we have left to whimsical fantasy, such as sexual attraction and love. Through this, we see that these untraceable elements of life are the subsequence of millions of years of human evolution.

Representing evolution through a change or variation in physicality has been done. After all, the concept of natural selection was conceptualised through the observations of difference in physical features. However, amongst Darwin’s detailed diagrams of finches’ beaks, there are thousands of unseen nuanced articles in nature that are also on the ever-winding path of natural selection.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Human Genetics, has once again demonstrated this factual unveiling of previously ‘unseen’ human nature. A team from the University of Helsinki have shown that the willingness to listen and make music is related to neurobiological pathways affecting social affiliation and communication.

It is well established that our talents and ability, i.e. at sport or music, have a genetic basis. Why this study makes me marvel so much is because it has provided a molecular foundation to the listening of music. When you think about the desire to listen to music as a genetically-influenced inherent trait, the concept itself is actually amazing.

The gene in question was AVPR1A. It codes for an arginine vasopressin receptor and has previously been implicated as a genetic factor in the willingness to participate in social communication. Homologues of the human AVPR1A gene have shown to increase birdsong in, well, birds, as well as mating behaviour in lizards and fishes

The gene was genotyped and analysed in 437 people (from 31 families) in Finland. After tests in musical aptitude and surveys in music-listening trends, the researchers found a positive correlation between the AVPR1A haplotype and amount of ‘active’ listening to music. To ‘actively’ listen to music was to show a willingness to listen, i.e. going to gigs or appreciating music as the main focus of an activity.

Obviously and inevitably, the willingness to listen to music is the result of both nature and nurture. It is also unlikely that this human trait is monogenic, i.e. controlled by the one gene alone. But that is what makes it all the more fascinating; despite the identification of a gene implicated in such an intangible trait of personality, there are probably so many other factors contributing to its prevalence and variability in humans. Science may uncover some of these factors, but others are most likely unquantifiable. With these, we will just have to settle with taking them for granted as unremarkable but ever-important occurrences that influence our willingness to listen and socialise with music.

Read Camila’s article on the 11th March in the latest issue of I, Science

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