A Lock of Beethoven’s Hair Holds Clues to His Musical Genius

ludwig van beethoven
Beethoven’s DNA Scored Low for Musical AbilityUniversalImagesGroup - Getty Images
  • A team of researchers tested Beethoven’s DNA for beat synchronization ability, a trait related to musicality.

  • While Beethoven’s polygenic score was unremarkable compared to the general population, the researchers say that his genius may have been in creativity, rather than musicality.

  • The team believes that further DNA study could help draw connections between DNA and individual traits.

There’s little question that Ludwig van Beethoven was a musical genius. But, just maybe, that genius came from his creativity rather than any innate sense of musicality. At least, that’s what a new test of Beethoven’s DNA suggests.

A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany and the Psycholinguistics in Netherlands analyzed Beethoven’s DNA sequences extracted from strands of hair available from a 2023 study. They were aiming to get a polygenic score—an indicator for an individual’s genetic predisposition for a trait or behavior.

In this case, with the study’s results published in Current Biology, the team was looking at beat synchronization ability. This trait is closely related to musicality, and can impact a person’s ability to recognize and keep time with a beat.

“Before running any analysis, we preregistered the study, and emphasized that we had no prior expectation about what Beethoven would score,” first author Laura Wesseldijk said in a statement. “Instead, our aim was to use this as an example of the challenges of making genetic predictions for an individual that lived over 200 years ago.”

Not having any preconceived expectations turned out to be a good path. Beethoven’s marks for musicality generated an “unremarkable polygenic score for general musicality compared to population samples” that were taken from Sweden and Vanderbilt University. Of course, the team points out that the genetic indicator for beat synchronization ability may not directly tap into Beethoven’s musical creativity that lead to his composing abilities.

“Obviously, it would be wrong to conclude from Beethoven’s low polygenic score that his musical abilities were unexceptional,” co-author Simon Fisher said in a statement. “We think that the big mismatch between this DNA-based prediction and Beethoven’s musical genius provides a valuable teaching moment. It shows, for example, that you should be skeptical if someone claims they can use a genetic test to reliably determine whether your child will be musically gifted—or especially talented in some other area of behavior.”

At the same time, the team recognizes that DNA can still contribute to musical skills, noting that musicality is heritable 42 percent of the time. The study’s authors claim that using DNA can help people understand the relationship between genetics and traits, but relying on DNA data to predict behavior remains imprecise.

“We use this as an example to illustrate broader challenges of individual-level genetic predictions,” the authors wrote in the study.

The hair used in this test is that same lock of hair that recently gave us insight into Beethoven’s health condition. Beethoven died in 1827, with liver disease being the likely leading factor. In a 2023 study led by Cambridge University and published in Current Biology, a team of researchers sequenced Beethoven's genome via locks of his hair to understand his health problems. These issues included progressive hearing loss, chronic gastrointestinal complaints, and severe liver disease.

The genetic research didn’t offer any definitive explanations for the deafness or gastrointestinal problems, but it did highlight significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. The team also found evidence of a Hepatitis B infection present in the body in the months before the composer’s death.

The researchers believe Beethoven’s Hepatitis B infection could have been the driving force behind the composer’s severe liver disease, which would then have been exacerbated by his alcohol intake and genetic risk behaviors. But certainty, in both the timing of the infection and extent of alcohol consumption, remains elusive.

Also elusive—just where all of that musical genius came from.

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