Medical Mysteries of Music

Can’t dance? Maybe it’s the fault of your genes.

There are some of us–me included–that should never dance. Oh, I’ve tried, but people keep asking me if I’m all right and if I need someone to call an ambulance. Weirdly, I’m also a pretty good drummer, so it’s not that I don’t have any rhythm. It’s just that when it comes to moving my body in time to music, the effect is something like this.

It turns out that the inability to dance in an aesthetically pleasing way isn’t my fault. I have a genetic disability. I welcome the excuse.

An interesting team of researchers working on human genetics found 69 genetic variants connected to our ability to move in time with music. “Groove is in the heart – rather, your genome,” they say. Or more scientifically, “Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity.” Sure.

There is no single “rhythm gene.” The brain and body require cooperation between many genes to find the beat. Interestingly, only 16% of these genetic traits are hereditary, so there are obviously some other factors here.

Study this, if you must. More details here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38296 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “Can’t dance? Maybe it’s the fault of your genes.

  • I’m going to chime in with a ‘me too!’ I’ve got rhythm and I can keep a beat and hold a tune and all that. I’ve got great timing when it comes to singing along to music – with or without said music playing. What I also have is a great big disconnect in my head that doesn’t go to the rest of my body unless it’s for something like…the twist or the charleston or perhaps (if I could go back that far) doing those dosey do things we did in elementary school but I cannot (oh no no nooooo) line dance. I can make fun of others (because I used to) for brief periods of time but I have no creativity in my soul when it comes to dancing although creative dancers are my faves. They were the ones I sought out to try and teach me to dance. But, alas, I eventually learned it was just not meant to be.

    I came to grips with it eventually. Other people, not so much. People do *not* like being told ‘no’ on this one and for this reason. I’ve had people physically pick me up and carry me on to the dance floor, plant me in front of them and start dancing in front of me; firmly expecting me to just join in. I just stood there a moment or so and then walked away after telling them, again, that I did not dance. At that point, they got the message.

    Disconnect. It sucks. I want to (shhh) be Christina and Meredith on Grey’s Anatomy and dance out with wild abandon like they do. Still. But, it is what it is.

    On a *very* rare occasion, if I’ve had enough to drink, with the right song, someone might catch me letting my guard down just enough to dance for a song. But it’s a fleeting moment and it’s like unicorn and fairy dust moment. You might not never know it happened if you blinked.

    ps My parents were heartwrenchingly, breathtakingly gorgeous when they were young and I would love to think they danced but as adults they were both quiet, reserved, antisocial people (although my dad was charming and very friendly and much beloved) – they just didn’t socialize like most people do or as I understand most people do. I don’t either. (Get me in a club or a concert with my music though and I’m someone different altogether!)


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