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Is musical ability genetic? And were there more species of ancient humans than we once thought? SciShow News investigates!

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 Music In Your DNA


Some people can pick up a song on a guitar just like that, or they can hear when someone's singing is just a little bit out of tune. Or maybe they, themselves, sing really out of tune, but why is that? Is music something that we learn, or is it just a part of us?
A new study published in the Royal Society B has surveyed all of the recent research that has asked this question and concludes that music may in fact be in our DNA.

Studies over the past 30 years have suggested that music phenotypes, or observable traits, have corresponded with familial clustering. That is, when relatives express the same aptitude or ineptitude for music.

Take amusia for example, also known as tone-deafness, the inability to detect notes that are out of key. Around 3% of the world's population has amusia, I'm sure you've heard them at karaoke bars. In 2007, scientists tested the family members of nine people who had amusia, and found that 39% of their first degree relatives, like brothers, sisters, mom, and dad, also had the condition.

But on the other end of the scale, there's absolute pitch, or AP, which is the ability to precisely identify and produce a musical note without any reference. So a person with AP could hear this sound, [A# plays], and know that it's an A# without first having to hear any other notes to compare it to. That might sound pretty easy, it's not, it's very rare.

A small study in 1988 showed that among identical twins, if one twin is found to have AP, there's a 79% chance that the other will too. The likelihood is only 45% if the twins are non-identical. This could mean that there's a relationship between musical aptitude and familial clustering, but this relationship could also be environmental rather than genetics, since twins typically grow up together.

But in the last few years, scientists have begun identifying gene expressions that may relate directly to musicality. For instance, a few studies have found a connection between the ability to remember music and perceive musical structures, like choruses, bridges, and note changes, to the expression of two specific genes. If you're keeping track at home, they are arginine vasopressin receptor 1A, or AVPR 1A, and a serotonin transporter gene called SLC 684.

The researchers stress that these are not the only two genes that may relate to music. Because music itself is so wonderfully complex that the scientists theorize that our genes too may work like a symphony, with different combinations of expressions allowing for different musical strengths.

According to this weeks study, the next step is to create a worldwide musicality test for children with no formal music training to help weed out environmental and cultural factors. Only then, they say, can science identify the potential orchestra of genes that helps us create and understand music.

 A New Human Species? 


Now speaking of your genes, you most likely share some of yours with a lot of different ancient extinct hominid. That's the taxonomic term for members of the genus Homo. Hominids include Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens, and the hobbit-like Homo floresiensis.

And last week, scientists announced that they might have discovered a previously unknown species of hominid in Taiwan. Researchers analyzed the intact fossilized lower jaw of a hominid called Penghu 1, which was dredged up by a fishing net in a Taiwanese sea channel.

Penghu 1 is between 100,000 to 200,000 years old, and has bigger teeth and a more robust jaw than many of the Homo erectus mandibles, found from that period known as the Pleistocene, in that part of Asia.

It also looks different from the 14 other known hominid that were wandering around earth during the Middle Pleistocene. In fact, there's only one other hominid fossil that it looks like. Penghu 1 closely resembles a 4,000 year old jaw found in northern China, which has also been puzzling anthropologists due to its robustness.

So, scientists hypothesize that the two jaws may come from a previously unknown species of hominid that once lived in Asia. But, they say that they need more fossils to compare if they're going to establish where this human fits into our family tree.

At this point, the two jaws could be anomalies, coincidences, or the result of interbreeding between two different hominids, which isn't unheard of. For most of us, anywhere between 1-4% of DNA actually came from Neanderthals. Which makes me wonder, if they where any good at music.

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