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There were always students in music class who just got the rhythm. But for others, making music of a jumble of notes wasn’t so easy. Having an ear for music is certainly not a given, but is it a genetic gift or an acquired skill? Scientists are still discovering new information about the way humans hear music, and have made some interesting findings so far.

Music to Your Ears: the How

Music travels through the ears to the temporal lobe of the brain through a series of mechanical actions and neural synapses. Sound frequencies correspond to specific areas in the auditory cortex, which can be compared to a piano keyboard that “plays” high, middle and low notes on the brain. The tempo, intensity and rhythm of music are then processed throughout the brain.

Look Ma, C Major! What the Ear Can Detect

Humans can detect harmony by age 4. A 2010 study published in Music Perception tested this ability among 4- and 5-year-olds by playing several versions of the first lines of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They used handheld sad and happy face signs to show whether or not they thought song was played correctly. So we all can hear the basic differences between chords. Yet making the jump from Twinkle Twinkle to Tchaikovsky depends on a person’s genetics or culture.

An “Ear for Music”: The Genes

In scientific jargon, having an “ear for music” is known as musical aptitude. The University of Helsinki, Finland tested the musical aptitude of 15 Finnish families whose members included a professional or amateur musician, then took samples of their DNA. In the overall results, genetics explained 48 percent of the difference in musical aptitude between participants.

An “Ear for Music”: The Means

A person’s environment also plays an important role in developing musical talent. Duke University’s Talent Identification Program reports research that correlates child musical prodigies with several environmental influences, including self-motivation, support from family members and mentors, access to instruments and music lessons, and practice, practice, practice.

An Ear for the Hearing Impaired

Wearing hearing aids can complicate things though. The loudness and intensity of music, compared to speech, makes for a distorted sound through hearing aids. Audiologist Marshall Chasin proposes six suggestions to deal with this issue in The Hearing Journal. Some are technical and deal with adjustments to the hearing aid machinery, but others are fairly simple – one suggestion is to put scotch tape over the microphones. Audicus offers hearing aids that are great for hearing music.

On that note, don’t get discouraged if music doesn’t run in your blood, or if you’re hearing impaired. Musical aptitude can be an acquired skill if it’s your passion.

by Estie Neff