RESEARCHERS at the University of Helsinki and the Sibelius Academy in a recently published journal article have shown that our willingness to listen to music is at least partly determined by our genes. Although the study by no means dismisses the importance of environmental factors when it comes to our music-listening preferences, it does emphasise the influence our biological make-up has on our propensity to listen to music.

This latest study is but a smaller part of a bigger research project looking into the biological basis of musical aptitude that started in 2002 and published the first of a number of articles in 2008. The most recent study makes use of data gathered from tests in which 31 Finnish families (437 family members of all ages) participated. The leader of the study, Professor Irma Järvelä says that they now have in their possession 700,000 genetic markers from test subjects spanning much of the country.

Besides aiming to show that specific genes play some role in our listening habits, Järvelä thinks the research has wider ramifications.

“People have always sung, played and listened music throughout history, so it’s important to find out why it’s remained popular and has survived so well,” she points out.

“Also, the more we know about our biological relationship to music the better we can understand brain function and utilise music for different purposes. For instance, our research will hopefully contribute to a better appreciation of how well music therapy works at present, thereby helping focus music therapy on groups that would benefit from such therapy,” she elaborates. “Music is a fantastic drug!”

Be that as it may, approaching music in an overly scientific way could be criticised for trying to rob humans of the mystery that surrounds the question of why music moves us like little else can. Järvelä herself says that music awakens an unrivalled spectrum of feelings.

“Many people may think we’re destroying the beauty of music, but the molecular study of music is far removed from people’s everyday musical experiences,” she explains.

“I don’t think anyone will stop making music or listening to it just because we know more about the science behind it,” Järvelä asserts.

Unfortunately, one area outside the research perimeters of the project is the question of why those people with the worst taste in music are often the most willing to make others endure listening to their record collection. So, it seems, music will retain at least some of its mystery after all.

Allan Bain