June 12, 2009 at 9:39 PM
This week, Anastasia Khitruk's blog on "Nature vs. Nurture" got me thinking about the big questions in life.
This one is probably as old as music itself: is musical talent mostly the result of nature, or nurture?
I say "mostly," because we all know that it involves at least a degree of both.
Nature=People are either born with musical talent, or not.
Nurture=Musical talent is a function of environment; it can be taught.
Okay, vote first, and then I'll share my thoughts:
When I was younger, I believed that being musical was all a function of natural talent. Why? Because I had plenty of friends who couldn't match a pitch, couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. Why was that? Clearly, they weren't talented.
Then, a friend of mine who had a very difficult time singing in tune, actually learned how to do so, and to do so even when surrounded with all kinds of harmony, while in college! This didn't fit my notions. I thought people either had a concept of pitch, or not -- not that they could "learn" pitch!
Then of course, I started teaching, and I learned about the philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki, who believed in "talent education." That is, everyone is born with talent, if it is only cultivated in the right environment.
Teaching can be very interesting, because one certainly gets a first impression of a student, and for me, those impressions are subject to change. Someone may seem very "talented," yet if they don't work and practice, they still get nowhere. Others may not seem as natural with the instrument, but through hard work, their ability flowers over time. And it must be admitted, some rise meteorically, whatever you do.
At this point, I believe that everyone has natural talent, but that we are born with different inclinations. Certain people are inclined to spend time perfecting music, and those people grow in their ability and in their love for music. Others are inclined to mix paints for hours on end, or to shoot a ball into a hoop, or to learn juggling. They don't really see the point in doing this work in music.
For instance: sometimes I work hard with a student on one passage in a piece of music. One student might finally succeed, then say, "I did it, can we PLEASE STOP already!" Another, given the same situation, will finally succeed, then without any prompting say, "I did it! Can I do it again?" then do it again and again and again. Who is the musician? Yes, it's the nutcase who wants to do it again and again and again!
The question you posed is indeed interesting and I had thoughts similar to yours. I recently reread "Nurtured By Love" by Suzuki and so that resonated in me. Your further discussion intrigued me. Thanks for getting my thoughts rolling!
It seems that you are confusing musical accomplishment with talent. I always thought (and still do think) that talent is, by definition, innate. Accomplishment is quite another thing; however, genuine accomplishment does require innate talent.
I offer as my proof the great prodigies. There was no course of training, no series of exposures, no environmental factors that could have produced a Mozart in 5-7 years from his birthday. It is absolutely obvious that he had a number of natural inborn gifts that allowed him to absorb and process his environmental influences that would simply have been unavailable to another infant born at the same time and raised in the same household.
Menuhin, Heifetz and even Sarah Chang could not have been trained to reach their level at such a young age by any course of training known to man. If you could do it then you could write it down in a book and repeat it over and over. There are still precious few at their level.
But as important and necessary as innate talent is, it is not sufficient to produce a true artist and virtuoso. That requires background, training exposure and environment is a critical factor.
Not true, Corwin. Mozart's father was an exceptional teacher and influence, and W.A. Mozart's training was intense and profound.
I'd say it's both situations. If someone has a natural talent for anything...be it music or business savvy...it will not manifest itself if the person is never exposed to an environment where their natural talent can blossom.
Olympians are a good example also. Gyms across the US are filled with young hopefuls who's parents are paying out huge sums of money for training. What about the naturally athletic kid whose parents cannot afford such? That kid goes 'undiscovered' and spends his life working in a factory never knowing if he was 'good enough' to make the olympic team because he was never given the same opportunites.
We become in life what we are exposed to. That's not to say a person can't 'make it' despite circumstances...but not in the USA because our government doesn't subsidize talent. Unless you consider all the college athlete's who spend time in jail as a government subsidy. We're paying for their food and cell space. Same as.
Well then, why wasn't Leopold as famous and prolific as his son? If all it took was the transmission of knowledge from father to son (which tends to be inefficient and incomplete) why did the son surpass him at such an early age? Might it have been something natural?
Indeed why haven't we duplicated the Mozart phenomenon a million times over? By now we should have replicating Mozart by nurture down pat. If you can do it once by training you can do it twice.
I cannot deny good training but training alone (without natural gifts) can never create anything more than a mediocrity and there are many of us.
In a course in school we briefly talked about musical aptitude vs musical achievement. Just because you have a high musical aptitude (that is to say, the innate potential based on your unique chemistry of a person a la multiple intelligences theory etc.), doesn't guarantee success with an isntrument or musical medium. One may have a low musical aptitude yet achieve great success through hard work and a persevering effort.
In this sense, I think, as with most things nowadays, it comes down to a combination of what's naturally there and what do we do to develop it.
If you forced me to pick one side, I would say nurture. A child may be a musical genius but he's not going to reinvent the wheel if you stick him in a room by himself with a violin for his first 10 years. He must have great teaching. Also, look up the 10,000 hour theory. I remember someone postulating through that theory and with primary/secondary source documents that Mozart could have legitimately achieved his 10,000 hours by the time he was 6 years old
You cannot deny the importance nor significance of natural, innate talent.
A book I like to recommend is, Meet the Musicians, From Prodigy to Pro.
An especially interesting story is the one of the percussionist who from a very young age was always tapping or drumming items together or on tables...in rhythm.
There is a very young pianist from Rockford IL., who was discovered by her grandmother playing the piano at the age of two.
The talent has to be there before you can nurture it.
I voted for nature because I thought nature is a necessary and primary condition for music talent, but then I re-read Laurie’s question I believe I should’ve voted otherwise because that was not what she was talking about.
Laurie talks about "mostly". Based on the way Laurie has framed the question and how the terms were defined, I would say that it is more plausible to argue that it is mostly nurture. For one thing, nature (the musical talent one is born with) is by and large invisible and indefinable, but nurture (musical talent that is a function of environment and can be taught) is conceptually much clearer and empirically verifiable. There are simply more evidence available to support the latter.
Since nature is a somewhat fuzzy concept (like love or smarts), it is strategically (and arguably ethically) more desirable to assume that everyone has it than not, as the only sure way for me to not have innate talent is to assume I don’t have it.
p. s. Also consider what level of talent we are talking about here: superstar-talent, professionally competent-talent, or amateur-proficient-talent? Example of Mozart is not a good one if we are talking about the latter types of talent.
I admit I agree with Corwin (don't want to speak about Mozart since I don't know all his story perfectly). Also agree with Tezz, many many of our greatest predigies were exposed in a musical environment since childhood. (But without natural talent, forget it. to make a really good level) As two examples (self related but I think it could apply to many), even if I had Hilary Hahn as a teacher, I would never become a prodigy :( Or, my siblings are very talented at school (science and maths I mean). Even with hard work, teachers outside school, coatching from my siblings etc, there is nothing really nothing to do with me. (I think I will pass but no more really)
Does this mean to quit NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We just have to be realistic. But everyone can progress with good work. Do your best and this is what counts. No sense beeing jealous of others since this is childish and you can destroy yourself. But every human being should try to get better compare to where he\she started and this is why we must not quit our violins! And yes, we should steel follow our dreams just to improve from our initial state.
So an exposure yes!!! but natural talent is compulsory for prodigy level (IMHO and opinions are really different from one person to another on this thread!) An interesting thread!
Yixi brough an interesting point, at the end of his post.
This idea everyone has talent is (I believe and this is just my view) an "eutopia" our society tells people just so that we don't all go jump off the bridge! Sure, we never know... Only a small number is really talented but we absoluntly don't know ahead of time who will compose this "small number". So yes, positive yet realistic attitude is a good idea for all.
i voted nature, mostly because of what i saw as defining "talent" - an innate predisposition to something. my parents, who are both violinists and teachers, sometimes talk about how when someone doesn't practice it is a "waste of talent" - implying that talent can be wasted. in my mind, some people are naturally more inclined to be musical than others - i'm not sure if this is genetic or if it is a result of things that a person is exposed to as a young child (so i guess it could be nature or nurture in that regard). hard work is the other factor that i see being important, and i think that the people who are most successful are both naturally talented and hardworking.
i'm not really sure which i think is more important, though. if someone works very hard at the instrument but doesn't have very many natural musical impulses, they end up being a technician or a dry, uninspiring performer... whereas someone who doesn't work hard may not necessarily advance to a high enough level for their talent to mean something.
We have a girls softball coach who wholeheartedly agrees with that 10,000 hour theory...only he translates it into 10,000 pitches by high school level ball. He starts working with girls at the age of eight. Nine months out of the year they practice pitching three days a week before school and on Saturdays. The ones who aren't dedicated are cut from the program. His first high school level pitchers are pitching this year and they are awesome. Most teams are lucky to have one good pitcher and one good relief...this guy has six freshman pitchers who are fierce. These girls are pitching fast and furious by sixth grade.
But again, you have to have the right body mechanics to be a good pitcher...after that it's all training.
I watched a documentary with Julia Fischer yesterday. She said she didn't like tossing the word "wunderkind" or "prodigy" around, because she says it implies a sense of unnatural ability on a supernatural level. She said it takes practice, etc, to pull these things out of anyone, and I agree. If innate talent is there, how useful is it if it isn't nurtured?
I;d like to direct attention to this article concerning the 10,000 hour theory and hear your responses:
Very interesting posts. I agree with Corwin Slack:- "confusing musical accomplishment with talent". As regards Mozart, there were other "musically nurturing" families such as the Bach's. Amongst J.S. Bach's family were many "talented" musicians but his achievement was too meteroric to be explained simply by "nurture". "Genius" ?? Haydn picked up his brother's violin and played it without any tuition. "Geniuses" ?? These folk had the motivation to work at it, too.
Intelligence is a gift of capriciously variable size that enables a person to learn to "do stuff". Anyone has an innate "talent" for quite mundane activities such as walking, talking and, it's said, singing along with Mama. It's already been observed that the word "Talent" is poorly defined and embraces the freaky geniuses as well as those with the foot on the lowest rung of the ladder. But clearly, nurture is essential since, if you never heard or saw one, you could not possibly want to play a violin.
Last summer a BBC program considered the nature versus nurture debate by looking at several celebrities, including Vanessa Mae. Before going through a battery of psychological tests she firmly believed that what she had accomplished on the violin was due to her own God-given talent. However after considering her upbringing she acknowledged that her achievements owed a lot to her upbringing. That included the influence of her mother who had the same driven, risk taking personality as herself. So the three legs of the stool were there; nature, nurture and personality. You can hear her impression of what she learned from taking part in the program here:
The end of theTV program had a special poignancy at the moment when it became clear that Vanessa's mother did not want to be reunited with Vanessa to discuss the program, although she was prepared to take the personality tests. And guess what; like mother, like daughter. Vanessa Mae, although visibly hurt, had reached a stage where she was able to acknowledge the advantages of having a driven parent.
I agree with the distinction that Corwin made. Talent and achievement are different things.
I admire most those people who don't have the greatest natural talent but who achieve at a high level anyway, through hard work and painstaking self-analysis.
But I also think that expecting the absolute highest level of achievement from someone who has little or no natural talent is unrealistic and unfair.
Haven't we had this discussion before? I seem to remember people taking offense to my preference of "God" vs. nurture over "Nature" vs. nurture. Anyway, reading the posts before mine we are all saying the same things. Most of us acknowledge that there is something some people are born with that gives them a special aptitute for music. We mostly all agree though that this special aptitude needs cultivation. For some that cultivation works with the talent like miracle grow and for others it is a standard growth cycle. We also seem to agree that you don't have to have super human musical ability to learn how to appreciate and take part in music. I think Corwin has hit it best. If what Mozart had could simply be taught, then the world would be full of Mozarts. I personally think it is awesome that we aren't all born being super wonderful at everything. I rather like the fact that there are people who can cook way better than I can because it makes taking my wife out on a date that much more enjoyable. I am glad that I cannot dance worth a lick (despite having lessons) because I can watch "So You Think You Can Dance" and be amazed at the talent I see there. The notion that everyone is born with an equal amount of potential at everything is at best a romantic notion of the human condition.
It seems to me that the question is not whether everyone can learn to sing or play an instrument. I think we all have the ability to learn to hear and imitate pitches, to play with a degree of proficiency. But I believe the desire to do it, the love of the art, is something one is either born with or not. This is just my personal (and unschooled) opinion, but I think the inclination to make music is innate in some, just as the inclination toward painting or writing poetry is with others. Music touches some of us at some level that reaches beyond the consciousness, into the depths of our being and demands expression. That's why we play, that's why we sing. A lot of people can sing or play an instrument, not everyone can give a truly moving performance. We've all heard a singer or a musician whose performance was adequate, but which left us less than impressed, versus a performer whose performance left us breathless, or in tears. I believe the difference in something that is inborn, something that can't be learned.
"The notion that everyone is born with an equal amount of potential at everything is at best a romantic notion of the human condition."
Agreed. We are all good at something...you just have to figure out what it is.
You don't have to be a virtuoso to have your life fulfilled.
"The notion that everyone is born with an equal amount of potential at everything is at best a romantic notion of the human condition."
Well said Thomas, and in a much less drammatic way than my way of expressing it: " society tells us this so that we don't all go jump off the bridge" :) lol
Laurie T, I actually disagree that the desire to make music or express oneself musically can't be learned.
I think it's actually most often grown into (or not). Sure, some people are born with it at an early age, but others feel self-conscious or undeveloped somehow. However, I think that one can develop that desire with time and maturity. Or, conversely, that desire can be quashed by negative experiences.
I admit that I'm thinking of myself. I enjoy performing much more now than I did as a kid. I'm not any better technically now than I was then (possibly worse, as reflexes slow down and whatever), but I have a much better understanding now of how to take what I do technically and translate that into what I want to come out of the instrument. I have more desire to do this now, because now I see how to get from A to B.
I think a big challenge in educating moderately talented students is to help them to make this connection, and to keep them interested enough to keep improving technically while their musical maturity develops.
What an interesting debate!
While I voted "nurture" as I posted before, I do believe that a person can have inborn talent. One idea that hasn't been mentioned: a person's inborn gift may be to learn more quickly, focus better, be more intrinsically motivated and the like. I do believe that is a factor.
With regards to the example about Bach, yes, he came from a family of great musicians. However, how many of them, when they wanted more challenging music, gave up sleep to hand-copy a book of organ music that had been thought too difficult? That, alone, shows a motivation to work. No stories of a similar thread or told of his relations. Yes, his music is genius (I'll be the last one to argue that), but if it was completely genetic, should his other siblings and cousins not have had that same hunger and motivation?
I think there are a myriad of contributing factors in musical talent, from environmental factors affecting the developing auditory cortex (such as early ear infections - which, by limiting what the developing auditory cortex is exposed to, can affect what sounds it can later differentiate - a good example of this is the inabilaty of a native Chinese speaker to differentiate between the r and l sounds) to internal factors such as desire, intelligence, and creativity.
To a degree, most of the necessary components can be learned. The brain is perpetually plastic (the auditory cortex can be trained to differentiate between r and l) and desire is about interest, which education can certainly create. And as for creativity, I firmly believe that all of us are born with at least some degree of it. When it is lacking, it is because the individual lacks the tools to release it. You have to speak the language before you can write poetry in it.
But I do think there are some individuals, Mozarts, if you will, who surpass the rest of us in profound musical creativity and intelligence. No, I don't believe you can train just anyone into a Mozart.
So where does that put me? I voted nurture, because I firmly believe that everyone has the potential to be a musician. But like Thomas, I too, celebrate the diversity of our talents. I think there is a good reason that some of us are more interested in balancing equations or cooking than in playing the violin. We are drawn to our own talents.
On the other hand, you don't have to be Mozart to create joy with your music.
What Makes a Mind?
And by asking that, what makes a mind of a musician, an artist, a cook, a physicist, etc.? some persons seem to be born hardwired for a tallent and can do fine on their own, but benefit from nuturing. I believe genetic plays quite a role, but let's not underestimate external variables either!
i think musical talent (to me that means higher affinity for music/"having an ear for music", higher ability to understand music in phrases and context, greater ease in memorizing, imitating and improvising, being more comfortable with performing, craving for public attention, aka like fish in water, being more physically fit for a particular instrument, etc) is born.
however, musical achievement, like your SAT scores, your chance to get into juilliard, is a mixture of talent and nurture, meaning, in youth, nurture and later, self driven ambition and hard work.
in reality, talent and achievement the way i have presented are mixed up in use. we see a kid good at something, we call it talent. when being told that the kid has worked hard to achieve it, ok, we call it talent.
because the word talent sounds dazzling. you are so talented!,,,,that rings.
you are so high achieving!...uh, nice try. we don't talk like that here.
" society tells us this so that we don't all go jump off the bridge"
Actually, Anne-Marie....I like your way of putting it better than mine. I was just afraid of being yelled at if I had said something like that.
I agree with the 10,000 hour requirement. So it is definitely nurture. But here's where the line gets blurry. Most people do not have the patience to spend 10,000 hours doing anything, certainly not by the time they are 8 or 10 years old. To put it in perspective, 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 3 hours a day for 10 years, or 6 hours a day for 5 years.
So that's where nature comes into play. Certain individuals have the patience, obsessiveness, call it what you will, to devote ungodly amounts of time to a single pursuit. Mozart may well have put in his 10,000 hours by the time he was 8. That's what really set him apart from normal people.
I am the father of a 7 year old boy and it is like pulling teeth just to get him to practice piano for 30 minutes. In 2 years of learning piano, he has probably played a total of 300 hours, maybe less. Therefore, it is not surprising that other kids his age who have devoted 3000 hours would be a whole lot better than he is. My son has no shortage of musical talent in my opinion, but he does lack patience and the desire to practice. So when you talk about talent, it really has less do with music in my opinion, than the desire and discipline to practice your craft. The talent is in the discipline, not the music.
Smiley, I went to a neurology grand round at Stanford and the author of the book This is your brain on music, Dr. Levitin. He explained the talent thing exactly like you said!!!
I believe experience can make up for a lack of natural talent. (ie the 10,000 hour rule) Look at a professional orchestra- experience plus talent has been combined in unique ways over life times to create and ensemble of roughly equal musicians.
I also believe without natural talent, a child has little interest because they don't see the point of all of that hard work. But a student who has a little talent and works hard with a good teacher in a good environment will be more successful than a student who has a great deal of talent but no discipline. Growing latent talent in others requires an ability to recognize potential and abilities and a special ability to communicate to that need. All the talent in the world without the right teacher or without desire and discipline will rot away and become useless.
True joy in music making only occurs when nature and nuture work in harmony.
Well, the 10,000 hours thing is certainly interesting and definately has merit. I think if I practiced cooking for 10,000 hours I would certainly be better at it then when I first started. I teach beginning string players every year though right around September 2nd when school starts. After the first 45 minute I can tell that some of the kids really demonstrate more "talent" than other kids. Also, I'm sure if I had been an 8 year old at the same time that Heifetz was an 8 year old it would have taken me about 10,000 hours to accomplish what he could have done in just one. I still vote for "nature" as being the source of talent and not necessarily nurture (though unnurtured talent is like a waterless seed.) I also don't think that it's all that important either. Just because someone doesn't posses the natural talent of the aforementioned Heifetz doesn't make them any less valuable or capable of success or deserving of attention. They're just a different "pea" in this great big "pod".
Also, to add onto what I just said...does anybody agree with me that sometimes natural talent can also be a hinderance to good growth? Especially when the child is aware of that natural talent? I've had many super talented students who have taken private lessons with me who get a bit lazy because they can get by with just their talent far too often in school. They come for lessons and don't think they really have to practice. Its sometimes a hard process to correct this notion. Sometimes I haven't been able to do it. I bet I'm not alone in this.
I was discussing this with a friend last night. He said that nature vs. nurture didn't matter if there was no culture to support them. If Leopold and Wolfgang reappeared today, they would be unknown. I think it is likely true. There have probably been a lot of Mozart's who had superior natural gifts and many whose gifts were cultivated but they appeared at the wrong time and place.
I realize that some may claim that culture is environment and nurture and so it is but I do think it deserves a separate standing in the debate since it may be less under our control than training.
“...does anybody agree with me that sometimes natural talent can also be a hindrance to good growth?”
I absolutely agree with you on this Thomas. Some people like to keep doing what they are good at but others (myself included) get turned off very quickly about something that is too easy (for them). The latter could end up being considered as not talented if they do not accomplish much due to keep pursuing new challenges instead of developing their natural talents.
"To put it in perspective, 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 3 hours a day for 10 years, or 6 hours a day for 5 years."
Don't agree you can become Yehudi Menuhin with 5 years at 6 hours a day. Many people who have a baccelar and Master in music have done this and they don't all play like geniuses even if many are super super good.
Morover, many v.commers must have done the 10 000 hours. (and of all levels)
, really and honnestly (don't laugh. well, anyway I don't laugh when I realize this) , I think I have done 10 000 hours (or will have done it very soonly) . I've practiced 5 hours a day on week days and about 9 hours per day on weekends for many years (4-5 years) when I wanted to go study in music. I have slacked down a bit (against my will...) now in non musical college. But my numerous hours were not because I have talent... on the contrary; It is because I do in one year what tiny talented kids that practice less than two hours a day can do in three months...
Quite frankly, I think a true love of music can push you to do many hours but does the intense love of music = talent ( IMHO, no) In life, you don't always choose with who and what you will fall in love and it can be totally illogical, irrationnal etc! Even more complex is that in music, two types of talents are required. Mental and physical talent. Perlman said something that went in this sense when he talked about the fact that one can "hear" it but not be able to "do" it.
However, I think talent is also the efficiency: the efficiency of getting everything right in no time. (or ennough short time to stay competitive and learn all the repertoire)
So I am still on the "nature" opinion. For sure nuture but compulsory nature with it for big names of the violin so to speak.
I don't think Leopold and Wolfgang would be completely unknown if they reappeared today. But they might only get their 15 minutes of YouTube fame like everybody else.
What an interesting debate. It's certainly a difficult choice, and I see we are split fairly evenly!
Karen lol :)
This is an interesting, timely conversation for me, as I've been reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker-- which argues for an evolutionary basis of a distinct, innate "human nature."
I can certainly guess that Pinker would easily build a model to show how musical ability would be selected over time on a genetic basis. Just consider how many times you've heard from musicians "I got into for the girls" (okay, I admit, you don't hear much of that talk from violinists.)
I would guess that no one would argue that the more beautiful/skillful mating songs of songbirds are based on anything more than an innate skill. After all, they are directly related to reproduction-- the best singers have the most offspring and pass on the good singing genes.
Likewise, humans are vocal creatures who have long wooed lovers with the sounds we make. It makes sense that an aptitude for making more or less beatiful sounds would be hereditary.
I would point out that this is not a dichotomy between having 100%musical talent and 0% talent, but a continuum between the two poles. The fact that there are documented cases of a small percentage of the population who are unable to differentiate pitches at all shows that the answer to this question is definitely that musical talent is innate-- even if 95% of the population is born with some musical aptidude and are completely able to learn to play an istrument adequately.
The fact that we here on Vcom think in terms of the violin, which is a technology that must be taught to its practitioners, muddies the nature vs. nurture waters. If we lived in a society where everyon habitually sang every day, I would guess that the genetic variance of musical abilities would be much more obvious.
Hi, I like your analogy with birds! My buggies play a lot on that! They also react to the kind of music I make them listen. Sure, it has to have something related with other species too. " maybe the theory of the "Bel canto" isn't that hilarous after all lol. I am attracted by any wonderful sound (especially violin even if any instrument is cool in its way). I believe it can have a link with love or just purely seeking something beautiful for the ear.
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