'Keeping time' is easy for humans, but not all can keep time equally. Some great drummers, and even more guitarists, use a device like a metronome to keep them on a precise beat, while others seem to do it effortlessly.

A new study finds human capacity to move in synchrony with a musical beat may be partially coded in the human genome.

Using over 600,000 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research, a research team identified 69 genetic variants associated with beat synchronization, meaning the ability to move in synchrony with the beat of music. This is only correlation, and such a large number of genetic alleles that vary in association with participants’ beat synchronization ability means it is just a fun story, but it does open the door to understanding why some people have impeccable musical timing, the same way some have what we consider perfect pitch.

Many of the genes associated with beat synchronization are involved in central nervous system function, including genes expressed very early in brain development and in areas underlying auditory and motor skills, according to co-senior author Reyna Gordon, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery and co-director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab.

Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., co-director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab. Credit: Vanderbilt University Medical Center

“Rhythm is not just influenced by a single gene, it is influenced by many hundreds of genes,” Gordon said. “Tapping, clapping and dancing in synchrony with the beat of music is at the core of our human musicality.”

The study also discovered that beat synchronization shares some of its genetic architecture with other traits, including biological rhythms such as walking, breathing and circadian patterns.

“This is novel groundwork toward understanding the biology underlying how musicality relates to other health traits,” said co-senior author Lea Davis, associate professor of Medicine.”