AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits
Learning Hub

Playing an Instrument

From lullabies for soothing infants to ritualised drum circles, musical expression—in its many forms—is found worldwide. Music can influence moods and be part of socialising or spiritual activities. While music is universal, the affinity for musical expression differs from person to person. Some seem to easily pick up the ability to play an instrument, while others struggle to carry a tune.

Do you play the piano, sing in a choir, or get together with friends or family for a jam session? Evidence suggests that the ability to play an instrument has a genetic connection. AncestryDNA® + Traits can tell you what your genes suggest.

Why Are Some Families More Musical?

Musical ability often seems to run in families—the historical Bachs, the Beach Boys, the Marsalis family, the Jackson 5, and the Carter-Cashes, to name but a few. The reasons for this ultimately come down to the age-old concept of nature vs. nurture. Science reveals that both are crucial in a predisposition for musical ability.

Some families emphasise the importance of music from an early age by demonstrating and fostering a love for it. Musical families are also likely to nurture the ability to play an instrument or develop the voice as an instrument. This musical environment—one that plays an important role in family and daily life—helps young children develop a talent for musical instruments.

Genetics and Music Ability

Using a survey of over 650,000 people and their DNA, Ancestry® scientists have discovered over 6,500 DNA markers related to playing a musical instrument. Based on the DNA data and survey responses, the AncestryDNA® team built a polygenic risk score (PRS), a statistical tool that can predict how likely you are to play a musical instrument. Ancestry scientists attributed around 6% of the variation in the instrument-playing trait to differences in DNA.

Genes connected to this music-related phenotype—the ability to play an instrument—involve those that relate to:

  • Brain organization
  • Music perception
  • Music memory
  • Listening

Multiple studies have also looked at other aspects of musical ability and genetics. For example, one study followed five multigenerational Finnish families. The study found an association between creativity in music and the gene GALM. This gene is important in serotonin release and binding in the area of the brain responsible, in part, for music perception. This part of the brain has also been identified with other functions important to musical talent, such as beat perception, musical imagery, and sensorimotor synchronization.

Another study investigated the difference between genetic and non genetic components related to absolute pitch—the ability to identify and recognise pitches without external references. In this study, 40% of musicians who began their musical training by the age of 4 could detect absolute pitch. Just 3% of those who began studying at or above 9 years of age could report the same. As the age at which a musician began studying music increased—an environmental factor—the likelihood of them developing absolute pitch decreased.

The same study also found that those who could recognise absolute pitch were four times more likely to have another family member with that same ability, which suggests a genetic component at play.

What Else Does Science Say About Musical Ability?

Genetics may give the capability to thrive musically, but without the right external factors, someone isn't likely to develop the talent. Environmental factors are huge predictors of success in music.

While raw talent that’s genetically inherited can influence musical aptitude, like being able to pick out a rhythm or having an ear for music, playing an instrument requires many skills that aren't innate. Multiple environmental factors related to a musical education are important, such as

  • Easy access to an instrument
  • Acquiring the necessary technical skills
  • Learning to read sheet music
  • Time to practice
  • Self-motivation
  • Supportive family members and teachers

Another positive aspect to learning to play an instrument, as suggested by scientific studies, is that it involves different parts of your brain. In fact, it engages most parts of the central nervous system. Research shows that the coordination that happens during musical training strengthens the connections between areas of your brain. This improved neuroplasticity, a result of those connections becoming stronger, means that your brain can process information more quickly.

Interesting Facts About Musical Ability

Musical ability and playing instruments have been an important part of human culture for thousands of years. In fact, archeological evidence points to musical traditions that date back over 40,000 years. For example, bone and ivory flutes have been found from the early Aurignacian period—47,000 and 41,000 years ago—in what is now Germany.

Drums, dating from 6000 BC to 1550 BC, have been found in Middle Eastern areas such as Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, as well as in North African regions like Egypt.

And ocarinas, more than 4,500 years old, have been found in Central America. These wind instruments, formed from clay, were part of cultural traditions that stretched from Mexico through the Andes. Ocarinas have a rounded shape, rather than the tube-like flute.

Beyond a tendency for music to be universal, there are also universal contexts to music that have the same features. Dance music is universally quick and rhythmic, while lullabies are softer and slower.

A Tuneful Blend of Genetics and Environment

It's never too late to learn an instrument, and science supports this. While children may learn quicker than adults with fully matured brains, anyone physically capable of playing an instrument and learning can acquire expertise with patience and perseverance.

Are you interested in the connection between your genes and playing a musical instrument? Find out by taking an AncestryDNA® + Traits test. If you’ve taken an AncestryDNA® test and have an Ancestry family history subscription, look for “DNA” on the website to access your Traits results.



Baharloo, Siamak, et al. “Absolute pitch: an approach for identification of genetic and non genetic components.” American Journal of Human Genetics. February 1998.

Blyweiss, Adam. 25 Essential Musical Families. Treble. November 27, 2018.

Caribe, Mario. “World's Oldest Musical Instruments.” Spinditty. May 28, 2023.

“Earliest musical instruments in Europe 40,000 years ago.” University of Oxford News. May 24, 2012.

Herfindahl, Nathan Jeffrey, "Creating Talent: The Effect of Environment on the Development of Musical Skill." September 19, 2023. Doctoral Dissertations and Projects, Liberty University.

Heshmat, Shahram. “Music, Emotion, and Well-Being.” Psychology Today. August 25, 2019.

Izbicki, Patricia. “Your Brain Will Thank You for Being a Musician.” Scientific American. April 9, 2020.

"Marsalis family." Encyclopedia Britannica. September 17, 2020.

Park, Hansoo, et al. “Comprehensive genomic analyses associate UGT8 variants with musical ability in a Mongolian population.” Journal of Medical Genetics. December 2012.

Ross, Elizabeth M. “Does Nature or Nurture Determine Musical Ability?” Harvard Graduate School of Education. March 10, 2023.

Sapega, Sally. “Playing an Instrument: Better for Your Brain than Just Listening.” Penn Medicine News. January 30, 2017.

Tan, Yi Ting, et al. “The genetic basis of music ability.” Frontiers in Psychology. June 27, 2014.

Trehub, Sandra E., et al. “Cross-cultural perspectives on music and musicality.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences. March 19, 2015.

Ukkola-Vuoti, Liisa, et al. “Genome-wide copy number variation analysis in extended families and unrelated individuals characterised for musical aptitude and creativity in music.” PloS One. February 2013.

Ukkola, Liisa T. et al. “Musical aptitude is associated with AVPR1A-haplotypes.” PloS One. May 20, 2009.

White, Timothy Thomas Anthony. "The Beach Boys." Encyclopedia Britannica. October 22, 2023.

Related articles