Genetics & Genomics

March 26, 2024

Beethoven’s genes reveal low predisposition for beat synchronization

What the exceptional composer’s DNA tells us about genetics

(Adobestock) (Illustration/Diana Duren with Adobe stock)

Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most celebrated musicians in human history, has a rather low genetic predisposition for beat synchronization, according to a Current Biology study co-authored by Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and the Max Planck Institutes for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

The question of to what extent are exceptional human achievements influenced by genetic factors dates back to the early days of human genetics but seems to be easier to address today as modern molecular methods make it possible to analyze DNA of individuals throughout history.

An international team of researchers analyzed Beethoven’s DNA to investigate his genetic musical predisposition, an ability closely related to musicality, by using sequences from a 2023 study in which the composer’s genetic material was extracted from strands of his hair.

“For Beethoven, we used his recently sequenced DNA to calculate a polygenic score as an indicator for his genetic predisposition for beat synchronization,” said Tara Henechowicz, B.Mus.Hons, M.A., a current PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, recent visiting graduate student with the Vanderbilt Human Genetics Program, and the paper’s second author.

“Interestingly, Beethoven, one of the most celebrated musicians in history, had an unremarkable polygenic score for general musicality compared to population samples from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Vanderbilt’s BioVU Repository,” she said.

The authors noted that it would be wrong to conclude from Beethoven’s low polygenic score that his musical abilities were unexceptional.

“Our aim was to use this as an example of the challenges of making genetic predictions for an individual who lived over 200 years ago,” Henechowicz said.

“The mismatch between the DNA-based prediction and Beethoven’s musical genius provides a valuable teaching moment, because it demonstrates that DNA tests cannot give us a definitive answer about whether a given child will end up being musically gifted.”

Henechowicz said the study does not discount that DNA contributes to people’s musical skills, noting that prior studies have found an average heritability, which is the proportion of individual differences explained by all genetic factors, of 42% for musicality.

Reyna Gordon, PhD

“In the current era of ‘big data’ such as Vanderbilt’s BioVU repository, we have had the opportunity to look in fine detail at large groups of people to uncover the genetic underpinnings of traits such as rhythm ability or being musically active. The current study and other recent work also suggest that environment plays a key role in musical ability and engagement as well,” said co-author Reyna Gordon, PhD, associate professor of Otolaryngology at VUMC and graduate co-advisor to Henechowicz.

“Polygenic scores are intended to work well for comparisons of large groups of people to tell us how genetic risk for one trait relates to the genetics involved in other traits.” Henechowicz said.