- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Though overall musical talent seems to be due to a number of different factors, pitch recognition may just be in the genes.

In a study on musical pitch recognition with 764 twins, researchers found that 80 percent of the ability to recognize pitch can be credited to genes and not environmental factors, says Dennis Drayna of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda.

He is chief in the section on systems biology of communication disorders in the laboratory of molecular genetics at the institute.

“Pitch recognition is mostly genetic,” says Mr. Drayna, who holds a doctorate in genetics. “It’s what you inherit. It’s not how many hours you spend practicing or listening to the radio.”

Although the basics of musical talent, such as pitch recognition, may be genetic, that doesn’t mean that a person without the inherited trait can’t succeed as a musician. Many other important musical qualities depend on practice, practice and more practice.

“You could have great pitch and terrible memory, and you won’t be a very good musician,” Mr. Drayna says. “There are many contributing factors to whether you are good in music.”

A church organist and pianist once flunked a distorted-tunes test for one of Mr. Drayna’s studies. He credits her musical ability to good motor skills. She also happened to be a fast typist.

Further, if music ability were completely genetic, it could be caused by a number of different genes that are not easily identifiable, Mr. Drayna says. Even though tune deafness runs in families, it is not clear whether a single gene causes this trait.

In addition to genes, people usually need to be exposed to music in a formal setting at a young age for the talent to develop, Mr. Drayna says. Today, young children are exposed regularly to music through television commercials.

Similar to how the brain is born with the capacity to learn any of the world’s languages, the brain has an innate musical capacity, says Dan Levitin, author of “This Is Your Brain on Music.” He is the James McGill professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal and holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience.

Although this doesn’t imply a level playing field, it does imply a certain minimum that people can achieve, he says.

“Some people become great orators,” Mr. Levitin says. “Some people become great writers. Some people don’t. All of us more or less learn to speak. We don’t all become Martin Luther King Jr. or Richard Burton. All of us can learn to sing and play an instrument. We don’t all become Yo-Yo Ma or Stephen Sondheim.”

In his interviews with musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton, Mr. Levitin says, the artists denied that they simply were born with musical talent.

“They all remember a time when music got to them and moved them some way and they decided to study and practice,” Mr. Levitin says. “If you look in conservatories, the ones who are the best, they aren’t the ones who had the most talent, but the ones who practiced the most.”

In fact, genetic predisposition for tenacity, patience and focused attention will help a person become an expert in any field, he says. Physical predisposition, such as the size of someone’s fingers and throat, can enhance musical ability.

With advancements in technology, piano students can have almost any teacher on the globe, says Jim Presley, marketing manager for Disklavier at Yamaha Corp. of America in Buena Park, Calif.

Yamaha’s Disklavier makes remote lessons possible, he says. The acoustic piano connects to the Internet, sending a signal between two of the pianos. What the student plays on one piano will be replicated by the connected piano in another geographic location.

“It is able to send information over the Internet that allows another Disklavier at the other end of the Internet signal to know precisely what is being played,” Mr. Presley says. “Piano teachers and students can connect without any limitations.”

Every student should have access to music training, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the music and neuroimaging laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“Intense learning or practicing over a long period of time actually changes the brain,” Dr. Schlaug says. “If you compare adult musicians and adult non-musicians, you will see their brains are different. The difference has some relationship to the intensity of training or the early commencement of musical training. Most of the difference has to do with the auditory system and the motor system.”

In 2003, Dr. Schlaug began a study that focuses on children ages 5 to 7 to see if instrumental music training leads to changes in cognitive and brain development. It also should clarify how this would affect someone who does not pursue instrumental music training. He anticipates at least two more years until the study is complete.

Researchers argue that what people call music is fundamentally different from the sounds made by other animals, says Aniruddh Patel, senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. He has a doctorate in biology.

“Birds sing, but they do that at specific times of year and contexts to serve a specific biologic purpose,” Mr. Patel says. “Humans make music in many different social purposes, not just for biological functions.”

Although rhythms may differ from one culture to the next, only humans move spontaneously to the beat of music, he says. The basal ganglia is one of the parts in the human brain that is involved in keeping track of the beat in music. It also is involved in vocal learning. Both moving to a beat and vocal learning involve a tight relationship between hearing and movement.

Humans are the only primates that have complex vocal learning, in which they can produce a sound based on what they hear. However, parrots, songbirds and dolphins have vocal learning without the ability for speech.

“The prediction would be that only those animals could ever learn to move to a musical beat,” Mr. Patel says. “The parrot is the only other animal that has been reported to move spontaneously to rhythmic music. It is not clear if they are moving to the beat. Humans really move to the beat. Humans sync their movements.”

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