Printer-friendly version weekend vote: Is talent or practice more crucial in acquiring musical ability?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: July 18, 2014 at 11:47 AM [UTC]

A recent study has strongly pointed to nature over nurture, when it comes to acquiring musical skill. The study, published in Psychological Science, by Miriam Mosing of the Karolinska Institute, in Sweden, apparently points to the conclusion that talent is more important than practice.

I thought I'd put the question to you:

Please feel free to elaborate on your answer in the comments below. The media certainly has had its say, here are a few of the headlines:

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent

Sorry, folks: Study says musical talent mostly comes from your genes

Music abilities come from DNA, not practice: so says study

Musical Ability: Twin Study Shows It Is Genetic

Scientists Have Discovered Proof That Musicians Are Fundamentally Different From Everyone Else

Yes, one study and now we know!

Though I'm willing to debate the question of talent vs. practice (which is really a variant on nature vs. nurture), I don't put much stock in what the media seems to be making of this study. If you want the unvarnished conclusions, here's the actual study; take a look with your own eyes. The study looked at twins, but 48 percent of those twins were fraternal, meaning they were no more genetically identical than any brother and sister.

One quote from the article in The Economist caught my attention, however: the idea that "the practice of practice itself seems to be under genetic control."

As a teacher for 20 years, I certainly can say that a willingness to practice is the number one factor in the success of a student. That willingness does not seem to correlate with a student's ability to match pitches, accurately clap rhythms or sing back melodies in their first weeks of study. If the student who shows natural musical ability is nonetheless unwilling to practice, that student is rapidly passed up by those who do practice. So do some people have innate ability to practice well? And would that be considered "talent"? Of course, the student who has all those abilities and does practice tends to do very well, very rapidly. I've also witnessed the student who seems to have no sense of pitch develop it.

What do you think?

From Michael Baumgardner
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 12:46 PM
Not wanting this to be true doesn't make this not true. Psychologists generally agree that nature (genetics) and nurture (experience or "practice") have varying impacts on any skill. At one extreme, genetics would seem to dominate basketball playing (very unlikely you make the NBA no matter how hard you practice if you don't have the right physical makeup given by your genetics). Other skills may be more dominated by "nurture" or practice. My gut tells me that music tends toward the "nurture" side because it takes a lot of practice to get to high levels of playing or singing, but I'm sure genetics plays it part, especially at the very highest levels. In the end, people still play basketball for the love of the game. People still play music even if they aren't going to make it to Carnegie Hall. In either endeavor, somebody is always going to be better than you so not much reason to sweat over it.
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 1:10 PM
Talent (nature) is important, but you have to practice. Violinists, at some point in their development, have to practice a lot AND, they have to start young. I have yet to see any fiddler on the scene today who did not start playing at a very young age (3, 5, no later than 9). So if you decide you want to be a violinist and you are 18, it is probably better to pick up the guitar!
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 2:28 PM
Even the greats practice, and practice pays off for the non-great as well. However, I do think music practice helps everybody's brain, not to mention enjoyment of life itself. This applies even to those not pre-disposed to greatness on the violin.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 4:01 PM
Talent is slippery. It’s one of those words that we throw around as if we know what we’re talking about and we’re all in tacit agreement, but actually defining it isn’t all that easy. It’s like that Supreme Court judge who said that he may not be able to define pornography but he knows it when he sees it. Sounds good, but it’s actually not particularly useful -- for pornography or when it comes to this thing called talent. If we say someone is a talented violinist, what do we actually mean? Do we mean talent for learning things quickly? A lot of this so-called talent thing seems to be speed-of-acquistion related, but I’m not sure that’s fixed (and talent is supposed to be fixed, isn’t it?). Some learn quickly off the bat, some learn how to learn faster over time. Have they acquired more talent? Or is it talent for specific techniques? For musical ideas? Phrasing? For performing? For focused and insane amounts of effective practice? All of these can be improved. So what is talent, exactly? I don’t know. I don’t care. It doesn’t help me to improve. I prefer to think in terms of potential, and the ways we realize it. If everyone has differing amounts of potential, the differences may be less important than we tend to believe – since I suspect we are all so far below our ultimate potential that it’s not worth worrying about who has more or less. And on a practical basis, it certainly doesn’t matter how much unrealized potential you have. Assume you have a ton. I submit that the only thing worth caring about, the only thing that has any value, is the quality of the actual music that’s played. How it was developed, through talent or hard work or both, is irrelevant and, more, impossible to measure (the study, from what I read, seemed questionable in that regard). And since talent the way most people use the word is supposedly out of our control, what we can do, the only thing we can do, is to learn how to practice effectively, how to perform effectively, how to develop worthwhile musical ideas and a million other things. Again, the only thing that matters is what you manage to present on the stage. Whether that’s a result of hard work more than talent (assuming we actually know what we mean by that word), or talent more than hard work, it doesn’t matter in the slightest and, more important, we’ll never know. At the end of the day, in practical terms, your talent – however much you have – is meaningless.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 4:22 PM
Talent is an absolutely necessary but insufficient condition for musical and technical development.
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 4:42 PM
Read the actual article. It does NOT say that musical ability is more crucial than practice.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 5:01 PM
Laurie, you asked:

"So do some people have innate ability to practice well? And would that be considered talent?"

I do think some people have an innate ability to practice intelligently, musically, and in a passionate, focused and concentrated manner. And if this innate ability isn't strong, it can be cultivated and developed.

But "practicing well" also includes utilizing the correct mechanics. Correct mechanics are rarely conjured out of thin air, but are the product of good teaching, and an attentive student.

My favorite cliches are:

"If you wanna do the crime, you gotta do the time"


"You can't teach height".

There it is...

sort of...

Posted on July 18, 2014 at 5:56 PM
Natural talent allows one to reach a plateau. Practice is necessary to move beyond the natural talent plateau.
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 9:19 PM
Based on my own glacial improvement despite aving practiced a fair amount, I chose "talent."

If you ask todays truly great violinists, you would see that yes they all practiced hard, but when they were still quite young something "clicked" with the violin and with music generally (perfect pitch, perhaps, or the ability to overcome minor technical obstacles quickly, or a clear undrrstanding of music well beyong their ages, etc.) such that their progress was much faster than that of the regular hard working Suzuki kid. That "click" -- that's talent.

From Allyson Lyne
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 9:50 PM
The nurture vs nature argument took a major turn some years back, but the media didn't really pick up on it. Nature provides a greater or smaller degree of capacity via genetics, but nurture either allows you to take it and run...or not.

With violinists, pretty much anyone can become a good violinist through hard work. But Hilary Hahn (for example) probably has brilliant violin genes, as well as having worked long and hard with top teachers. Usually we figure out if we have the capacity to be a top-level artist along the way, and modify our ambitions to suit our level of skills and achievement. Same as athletes sorting out which sport they have the best skills for & whether they have the genetic advantage for Olympic-level competition in their sport as well as the ability to work that hard for that long.

This is a bit silly, but it helps me sort out my own students (:-):
1. Brilliant violin genes + Works really hard;
2. Brilliant violin genes + A bit lazy!;
3. Ordinary violin genes + Works really hard;
4. Ordinary violin genes + A bit lazy!.

Most violinists I've ever worked with are #3s, but the odd #1 comes along and lights things on fire. The 2s can be tricky to accurately spot, but I think I've known a few who left music for something better paid or else settled for a modest position.

There is the odd time I see this:
5. Truly awful violin genes + Works really hard; and
6. Truly awful violin genes + A bit lazy.

A few people have brains that are just about disconnected from their bodies entirely - really difficult to learn to play a violin like that. Some really really want to learn, and with hard work and double the time of anyone else, they can make good progress but I've not yet seen such a person play as well or easily as most middling students. Although they seem to benefit in a measure disproportionate to their actual success at the violin, with scholastic improvement & vastly improved problem-solving skills. But sometimes I think the person in this situation might have a lot more fun learning to paint.

I often think that the word "talent" is the justification of the general population for refusing to acknowledge that most musical skill is the result of a lot of really hard work. As long as it's called "talent", they can relax and feel comfortable making no effort. As in "Bob, why don't you learn to play that old violin of your grandfather's up in the attic?" "Oh that would be a waste of money, I don't have any talent." (Clearly a #4!)

From Sean Gillia
Posted on July 18, 2014 at 10:41 PM
Sometimes I wonder if what presents itself to the teacher as average or below-average violin genes is really that entirely. I’m noodling on a hypothesis, and have no idea if it’s valid, so bear with me. Could it be that by the time a student is standing in front of a teacher that a million environmental – emotional, psychological, whatever -- roadblocks could conceivably have been placed between those genes and their outward expression such that a clear view of someone’s true genetic predisposition (potential or talent or whatever) is obscured and perceived to be lower than it actually is -- so false negatives (but probably not false positives)? Put another way, could other things, apart from predisposition, negatively impact learning, or the speed of learning and accomplishment in those early years? Maybe part of achieving full potential (assuming there actually is a kind of fixed full potential for everyone) is not, then, simply the acquisition of necessary skills, but a clearing away of debilitating environmental clutter masking predisposition and hindering progress. If a student actually accomplishes this, progress might be attributed to average genes/hard work, when in fact it was the initial estimate of genetic predisposition that was obscured. And then again, how does genetic predisposition work? Does it always manifest itself as early rapid progress/promise, or for whatever reason, can true potential be realized later? Are there ever any surprises, or is all progress following that early assessment, right or wrong, attributable solely to hard work? I’m actually thinking of a swimmer I grew up with. He was a good local swimmer from age 8 to 13. But then suddenly – and it was sudden -- a single meet proved to be a definitive turning point. This decent swimmer hit the water and by the time the race was over, he had DRAMATICALLY lowered his best time up to that point – a full 9 seconds for the 200m fly, as I recall – and was suddenly a nationally ranked swimmer for whom the Olympic team was now a possibility. It was bizarre, one of those jaw-dropping moments. And it wasn’t a fluke. It happened with his other events that weekend – and thereafter. The transformation was mind boggling to everyone, including him, and his coach. He was an entirely different swimmer – and it happened virtually overnight. Was this merely average genes and hard work paying off? Or was the particular nature of his predisposition/true potential waiting for something, for some sort of alignment of factors, to manifest itself? I have no idea.
From Sharon Reagan
Posted on July 19, 2014 at 7:40 AM
I read the Economist article about the study. They demonstrated that certain abilities are genetically linked, such as tonal and rhythmic discrimination. In this study, practice didn't improve those musical abilities. However, we all know that practice is vital to becoming a musician. A musician is more than a set of abilities.

From Pavel Spacek
Posted on July 19, 2014 at 7:42 AM
Funny. Whenever people comment after hearing my daughter's violin playing that she is talented I just reply 'No, she is ordinary normal kid but she does practice every day'. It was her own decision to play double bass at the age of 3 which was modified to violin because of size. Talent is that you are born healthy and not damaged, the rest is hard work. The same applies to ear training, my daughter had average ear, I made a program she could play on PC and she has developed acute hearing, there is a difference between D# and Eb for her now. Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
From Mark Roberts
Posted on July 19, 2014 at 12:47 PM
Productive practice is the key, one has to keep it interesting so that one can concentrate. I notice that you put up the link to research gate rather than psychological sciences. If you want to look at things which have nothing to do with music try my research gate:
Posted on July 20, 2014 at 6:57 AM
Without talent, no amount of practice will get you there.

Of course a talented musician has to practice—a lot.

But lacking talent is like lacking fingers.

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 2:12 PM
This is for Allyson L.
I enjoyed your list of characteristics of your violin students. I can see myself on your list (but I do not wish to tell you which one I am) It made it clear that you can't "fix" talent but you can "fix" lazy. Thank you very much!
One more thing. A big "no" the "learning to paint." Yes, you can teach anyone how to paint but you can't teach anything about how to "see." Art is a whole different discussion.

From Brent Hudson
Posted on July 20, 2014 at 2:21 PM
The degree of "talent" may predetermine the ease of acquisition of musical skills, a repertoire, etc.. Most everyone has some talent. Those who sense that practise will get them somewhere valuable, musically and/or professionally, seem to become the more motivated. In some, talent, motivation and practise get augmented by broader emotional intelligence to produce the really special art we go to the hall or buy the recording to hear.
Posted on July 20, 2014 at 2:37 PM
We've all seen the remarkably talented people who run a high risk of flaming and burning out, never to be seen on a stage. Desire and passion, along with training, seems to build a violinist. If you want to become a professional violinist, you probably do have to start as a child and "grow into it". But I have seen adults, who practice and have passion and maturity, advance at astounding rates. Can a person develop a respectable ability by practicing? I think so. Are there some people out there born to play violin on a level above all others? Of course. The "greats" that we see, whom comprise a tiny percentage of musicians, are a rare combination of attributes. Most of us enjoy music because it fills a need in our soul, and we develop ourselves are far as we possibly can by practice and performance experience. Every violinist is in process.
Posted on July 20, 2014 at 7:14 PM
To paraphrase Arthur Rubinstein, he said it' was one percent genius and ninety nine percent hard work or practice .
Posted on July 20, 2014 at 10:04 PM
You have what i would call a scientific mind , Sean Gillia. Be great to have a bunch of people like you to study the human mind and specifically :subjectivity, where science is so frightened of.
I am sure you would love this one , its about a new discovery of how the human mind functions. If it intrigues you , read the book Origins first and then maybe listen to the first 2 recordings to get what the proposal is. It a good honest reasurch about the human mind. I think there are some very compelling answers to the human mind here. Anyway i have no intention to impose this on to you or anyone. Just a suggestion.
I often find that musicians have a brilliant mind which would be very helpful in so many other areas.
All you guys will laugh, I started to play the Violin when i was 47. And i love it! The brilliant teacher i have does definitely the trick for me. And find the music pieces i am passionate about, is so motivating. My teacher never limits me. He always says: Yes you can do that. Or we will chip through that. And i am pushing my limits all the time. Of course i will never play the top stuff. But hey , its all about passion and enjoying it. And maybe its about this too : an interesting TED talk about the production of dopamine. :)
Posted on July 21, 2014 at 12:23 AM
I read the study and think a more accurate one would measure proficiency on an instrument or compare students with aural training to twins without such training. Musical ability and success can mean many different things. I think it's important to keep in mind that many proficient instrumentalists enter undergrad without basic aural skills and learn them then. Aural training is something a lot of musicians have to keep doing all the time. Perfect pitch, too, can be a learned skill. I think practice is by far more important than talent.

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