The charm of music

Music has a firm basis in biology. Newborns have been found to show stronger reactions to music than to their mother's voice. Music has a strong effect on people also later in life: it has even been found to help recovery from a cerebral infarction.

BIGTALK is a new interview series, where big questions are asked from the scientists of Helsinki University. On the second episode Ville Halonen talks about music with Irma Järvelä.


At the University of Helsinki, Docent Irma Järvelä of the Department of Medical Genetics and her research team are currently investigating the genetic background of the musical characteristics of mankind, or, the evolutionary basis of musicality.

"Our hearing centre is practically identical with that of the first primates who lived millions of years ago. The ability to create and understand music must, therefore, be due to genetic mutations and the development of the human brain," Järvelä says.

Musicality can be developed with practice

According to Järvelä, musical creativity and musicality are complex characteristics, the result of a combined effect of many genes, environmental factors and the interaction of these. Musicality only becomes manifest with exposure to music, and musicality can be developed with practice, Järvelä says.

"There's no need to be concerned for your own musicality - most people have comfortably average musical abilities. Only very few are completely unmusical or extremely talented.

Järvelä's team has found a connection between musicality and the AVPR1A gene, discovered in 1990s. The AVPR1A gene is known to affect social interaction, attachment, generosity and, for men, commitment to relationships. For birds, the corresponding gene affects singing, and for lizards and fish, courtship displays. The new discovery seems to confirm what has always been known: music charms you and creates a bond between people.

"Communication forms that make rich use of voice, such as birdsong, resemble music and precede speech on the evolutionary scale," Järvelä explains.

"Biologically considered, music is sound that we produce using the voice box and brain. These sounds are then used to make contact with other people. With evolution, the sounds have developed into music and musical culture, which is a modern phenomenon."

BigTalk interview series at University of Helsinki's YouTube channel »»

Research Database TUHAT: Irma Järvelä »»

Molecular genetics of human inherited diseases and traits group »»

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Photo and video: Tapio Ollikainen and Tiina Aarniala
Translation: AACGlobal
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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