This website is testament to the wide-ranging benefits that come from learning and making music, but a new study from Finnish scientists has broken new ground in making the connection between genetics and playing music. It shows how music fires up the genes involved in growing new connections in the brain.
Academic researchers in Helsinki took blood samples from 10 professional musicians before and after they had played a selection of pieces by Stravinsky, Haydn, Mozart and Bach. They identified all of the genes that were turned on during the performance – that is, those genes that actually got transcribed into ribonucleic acid that could be used to make proteins. Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a polymeric molecule and is implicated in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation, and expression of genes. RNA and Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) are nucleic acids, and, along with proteins and carbohydrates, constitute the three major macromolecules essential for all known forms of life.
What the researchers saw was a boost in the activity of genes involved in neural growth and flexibility, which could account for musicians’ brains being good at forging new connections. Genes involved in motor control were also revved up, as were those that light up the brain’s pleasure centre.
Perhaps not surprisingly, versions of about a third of these musically important genes are known to also be active in songbirds—another creature whose livelihood depends on using musical talent to wow an audience.