Musical Talent: A Mix of Genes and Environments

Where does musical talent come from?

Posted Oct 30, 2017

The 30-year-old Anderson twins, Peter and Will, exemplify many aspects of twin research when it comes to musical talent. These graduates of New York’s Julliard School for the Performing Arts are awe-inspiring jazz musicians who perform at New York’s Lincoln Center and entertain fans all across the country. I first heard about them in the summer of 2017 when I attended a performance, "Songbook Summit," a four-part revue created and performed by the Anderson twins. This production led me to think more carefully about the origins of musical interest and talent. I interviewed the twins to get some ideas when I met them again in the fall at the Vibrato Grill in Beverly Glen, California, founded by jazz musician Herb Alpert.

Peter and Will were born in Washington, D.C. but raised in the nearby suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. Peter was born first by Cesarean section with a birth weight of four and a half pounds. Will, the larger twin, followed 10 minutes later with a birth weight of five and a half pounds.

Interestingly, neither of their parents played a musical instrument, although a paternal aunt was a pianist and their maternal grandfather, whom they never met, was a great fan of jazz. The only musical influences in the twins’ home were their mother’s taste for jazz and the consequent availability of recordings of her favorite artists, such as Benny Goodman. The twins’ older sister played the violin.

Both twins always like music and practiced constantly on their first instrument, the clarinet. They claim that having a twin brother helped them to develop their musical talent because each one served as a motivating force for the other. The brothers were competitive in a good way, “trying to keep up with one another.” I have heard these thoughts before, expressed by elite identical twin athletes who say that what one of them achieves can be matched by the other, and they are usually correct. Peter and Will went on to gain skill playing other instruments, such as the alto saxophone and flute (Will)and the tenor saxophone (Peter). The twins are shown in the accompanying photograph taken by photographer Lynn Redmile—Will is on the left, Peter is on the right.

Throughout the years, the twins have shared their friends, teachers, and classmates, and have never been separated for more than one month. Currently, they write, produce and record music, explaining that each brother contributes equally, but differently, to the finished product. They love performing together and plan to do so in the future. In addition to their musical abilities and interests, they both enjoying jogging through the streets and parks of New York City.

The Anderson twins believe that they are identical twins and many of their shared traits are consistent with that view. In fact, their doctor has always believed that they were identical and their mother recalled that the doctor told her she had never seen twins who looked more alike. There was a fused placenta, but that could indicate an identical or fraternal pair. When the twins were a few months old, their blood groups were compared and the doctor said that they must be identical because of so many matching markers. However, in my view, Peter and Will look just different enough that I encouraged them to have a DNA test performed, as I do for all same-sex twins. My colleagues and I believe that this is important for twins’ identity and self-concept, for their understanding of their similarities and differences and in the event that they face a medical emergency—genetically identical twins are ideal blood and organ donors for one another, although organ transplants can fail on occasion due to infection or other factors.

Photo by Lynn Redmile
Source: Photo by Lynn Redmile

The Andersons reminded of Race and Sanger’s (1975) words on this topic: “For many years, Mr. James Shields of the Genetics Unit at the Maudsley Hospital has been sending us samples of blood from the twins. We find that the blood groups practically never contradict the opinion of such a skilled observer of twins.” We will see if I am right! Meanwhile, the Anderson twins’ website includes additional information about them and a calendar of their upcoming performances.   

Twin Research

Both genetic and environmental influences have been found to underlie a number of musical traits. One example is perfect pitch, the ability to correctly name any musical note or to sing any musical note correctly without assistance. Finnish investigators explored this issue and others even further in an online study that presented a series of musical tasks to twin participants. The tasks variously assessed scale (detection of pitch changes in a two-melody comparison), incongruities in key off-key perception in a single melody) and incongruities in rhythm (off beat perception in a single melody). Scale was mostly affected by genetic effects (58 percent), key was largely affected by shared environmental effects (61 percent) and rhythm was largely affected by nonshared environmental effects (82 percent).

Practice sounds like an environmentally based trait, but even practice has genetic underpinnings. That is to say, it may be that motivation, persistence, and ability drive some people to practice more than others. Parental pressure can also make a difference but in unpredictable ways. When I was affiliated with the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart we studied a pair of identical female twins, both of whom had been given piano lessons in their respective rearing homes. In one case, the twin’s parents were fairly strict about practice and training, yet their daughter did not go on to pursue a musical career. However, her twin sister who grew up in a more lenient home became a concert pianist.

Identical-fraternal twin comparisons are giving us critical insights into the bases of so many human behaviors. Musical ability is one of them, but many more studies need to be done.

Note: This article was adapted from a longer overview to appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics. 


Segal, N.L. Musical interests and talent: Twin jazz musicians and twin studies. Twin Research and Human Genetics (in press).​