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Nature and Nurture

Humans are musical by nature. Infants can follow melodies, and even unsophisticated listeners cringe at a sour note. Scientists are beginning to reveal the biological underpinnings of our capacity to make and enjoy music. Human DNA and the human brain give rise to our musical abilities, so it's no surprise that music is universal among human cultures. Still, music is also an expression of particular cultures and traditions--whether passed on from master to student or digitally downloaded. And no matter what your talent, to become an accomplished musician requires nurturing--you have to listen, learn and practice.

How It Works: Hearing music

Whether you're listening to opera or jazz, your ears translate sound waves into nerve impulses in your brain. Music can activate many different areas of the brain, including regions responsible for emotions, for recognizing pitch and rhythm and for making you want to get up and dance.


© Robert Zatorre

When hearing a single tone, only musicians with perfect pitch access this brain region.

In Our genes

Is musical talent inborn or can it be learned? Scientists say both, at least for one musical ability: perfect pitch, the ability to identify the pitch of a musical tone without comparing it to other tones. Perfect pitch often runs in families, so scientists suspect it has a genetic component. But early musical training is also needed to develop this trait.

Did you know?

Most musicians with perfect pitch began musical training by age four. After about age 12, it's impossible to develop perfect pitch.

Bach on The Brain

By scanning a musician's brain activity while he plays a keyboard, scientists have mapped areas of the brain that handle musical pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, meter and duration. The brain has no single "music center"--rather, listening to and making music involve parts of the brain related to hearing, language, movement and emotion.

Learning Music, Learning Culture

When learning to play an instrument, young musicians are tutored by more experienced ones. The type of music you play or enjoy depends on your musical upbringing.

American Museum of Natural History

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