Volume VIII, Issue 2, Summer 2001
Table of Contents
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Musical Talent: Real or a Myth?
Note: “Matters of Opinion” will not appear in this issue.
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Musical Talent: Real or a Myth?
Copyright © 2001 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.
visitor to New York City policeman …
“Officer, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”policeman to visitor … “Practice, practice, practice!”
My piano teacher was Franklin Benjamin … no, most definitely not Benjamin Franklin!! If my memory is accurate (very unlikely), I started lessons at the age of nine. I think my parents wanted me to have the same opportunities for enrichment as my older sister, or perhaps I complained because “she has something I don’t have”. I doubt the latter because she had taken ballet lessons and I don’t recall ever demanding equal opportunity on that score; (in the Dark Ages of my youth in Cleveland, ballet for boys was considered to be “inappropriate”, to say the least … but I think it would have been more fun).
Whatever the circumstances, I was initially eager and subsequently a dutiful piano student, sort of. I learned “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, and many other things. We had a big old upright and it had a fine, loud sound. I learned to play “The Happy Farmer” and other such pieces. The “Spinning Song” was easier because the left hand keeps a simple, repetitive pattern. I must have advanced slowly, because I had gotten only to Schubert’s “March Militaire” four years later. I am pretty certain about this because, somehow, more than fifty years later, I still have that piano book. How it followed me to California, I can’t say. The cover is long gone, as are the table of contents … the book now exists from part of page 6 (Minuet in G by Bach) through a torn page 192 (Valse by someone named Durand, definitely never played by me … it has three flats and demands Presto!). But I can see at the bottom of each page that the scores were all copyrighted by Carl Fischer, Inc. of New York, still a pre-eminent publishing house.
Anyway, there on the top of page 74, (“Grandmother’s Minuet” by Grieg) in the hand of Franklin Benjamin, is the notation: “Norm, Jan 16-49”. So I was to practice this piece, starting that day. Perhaps I did. But soon thereafter, I was no longer taking piano lessons. Mr. Benjamin was a very nice, patient teacher. But I had decided to undertake playing something more fun, hopefully an easier instrument. So I joined the Roosevelt Junior High School Band and started playing the French horn. A big mistake! More difficult, less fun than the piano. I stayed in band for three years, taking private lessons on an instrument that successfully resisted my continual attempts to make cogent music. A later, brief flirtation with the bassoon in high school, and that was the end of my formal instrumental education.
When I quit the piano, my mother said I would regret it … and she was right about that, as with just about everything else. Why did I quit? Because I wasn’t doing all that well. I concluded that I just didn’t have the talent for the piano. This lack of talent apparently extended to the French horn and the bassoon; I just didn’t have enough musical talent.
My story is not unique. In fact, it is more often the rule than most would like to admit. The drop-out rate in music is enormous. Drop-outs occur for many reasons, but the belief in talent, or lack thereof, is a significant factor.
[ What is Musical Talent? ]
The belief in musical talent is widespread and powerful. Everyone has an extensive belief system about human behavior; this is often called “Folk Psychology”. It originates in personal experiences handed down over generations, as well as from our individual experiences. We act on our beliefs, assuming that they are correct. But we act on them even if they are actually wrong. Folk Psychology very often does not give an accurate picture of human behavior, of our makeup or the reasons why we do certain things. Are beliefs about musical talent accurate? Should people drop out of music because they have been born without enough musical talent?
The entire concept of talent in general, including musical talent, is being seriously questioned by scientists. Three English workers have taken the position that talent is a “myth”. Richard Howe of the University of Exeter, Jane Davidson of the University of Sheffield and John Sloboda of Keele University have examined the evidence that talent exists and concluded that this concept does not explain high levels of achievement in music or anything else. Their reasoning and conclusion have been subject to a great deal of debate in print. Let’s examine this issue.1
The first question is the meaning of “talent”. While this turns out to be a concept that can be defined in several ways, its core definition includes the idea that people are born with different abilities to attain high levels of achievement in various activities. So Folk Psychology holds that talents are innate, present at birth; some children have musical talent, others artistic, still others have a talent for math, literature, sports, etc. A closely related notion is that, given the existence of such special talents, they will be exhibited to some extent early in life. A third aspect is that only a minority of people are talented; most of us are born with no special talents.
A fourth idea about talent is that it comes in different amounts rather than simply being present or absent. So when we talk about some people having a talent, we aren’t referring to only a tiny minority of people who achieve the highest levels of expertise or success, such as the Picassos, Shakespeares, and Beethovens, but to a much wider range of achievement. In music, we generally consider “talented” individuals to be those who can play well, not limited to professional musicians.
Howe, Davidson and Sloboda (we refer to these authors as “HDS” hereafter) point out that the use of “talent” to explain high achievement in music or other areas is often circular. “She plays so well because she has a talent. How do I know she has a talent? That’s obvious, she plays so well!”
[ What’s the Evidence for Musical Talent? ]
To avoid a meaningless circular definition, HDS point out that the evidence for talent can’t simply be that someone is able to play a musical instrument well. Therefore, they reviewed the bases for talent claims from several sources. A major claim for musical talent comes from reports of child prodigies, in which exceptionally high levels of achievement are present early in life. Of course, Mozart comes readily to mind. However, HDS argue that the vast majority of information about prodigies has no objective documentation, but rather comes as anecdotal information or unreliable recall from adult musicians. For example, Artur Rubenstein claimed that he had mastered the piano before he could speak.
Another source of support for the talent explanation of achievement is that some children are born with special capabilities that greatly assist the development of whatever special talent they possess. “Perfect pitch” is perhaps the best known example in music. However, HDS argue that it is not so much innate as present in children who have been given extensive musical training by the age of 5 or so. Also, it seems that perfect pitch can be acquired.
There is evidence that exceptional skills are associated with greater size of some parts of the brain. Therefore, talent could be caused by prenatal specific changes in brain development. For example, the auditory part of the left hemisphere is larger in musicians with perfect pitch than in musicians without perfect pitch and non-musicians. But HDS argue that this correlation does not show an innate cause. Since brain growth can be affected by experience, increased size of a brain structure could have been caused by musical experience and practice, rather than being the cause of musical achievement.
[ Evidence Against the “Talent Explanation” of Musical Achievement ]
HDS argue that, in contrast to what they see as weak evidence for the “talent” explanation, there is considerable evidence against this position. They hold that there is a lack of early behavioral indications of talent in those who later achieve high levels of success in music or other activities. Importantly, they also argue that the talent account of achievement makes no sense if a child received special opportunities to learn. Otherwise, they say, one cannot distinguish between a child born with a specific talent from one who lacks the talent but who has undergone extensive training.
To support their position, HDS cite a study of outstanding American pianists in their thirties which revealed that neither the pianists nor their parents recalled any particular evidence of future excellence at an early age. Another more extensive review of Polish musicians “produced very few reports of any preschool behaviour predictive of unusual musicality”. An apparently positive finding proved no support for the talent account. Howe, Davidson, Moore and Sloboda studied more than 250 children, some of whom later achieved high levels of accomplishment in music.2 The authors reported that there was only one early behavior which distinguished the musical achievers from others: they started singing at a younger age. However, the authors also found that in these cases, there was extensive parental singing previously. Thus, it is argued that an innate talent for music is not necessarily responsible because of the special early experience of parental singing.
One could argue that these findings cannot be interpreted one way or the other. While parental encouragement in music might have produced children interested in and motivated to study, to practice and eventually attain a high degree of musical competency, an innate talent for music might have been noticed by parents, who then provided additional musical experiences.
HDS also point out that adults who have no special expertise can achieve exceptional levels of accomplishment if given extensive training. While true, this point seems not very convincing because musical talent could still exist, but not be the only means of achieving excellence.
An interim summary is that the evidence for a talent explanation does not seem to be very strong while evidence against this account of musical achievement is, perhaps, marginally stronger. The question, then, is what could explain achievement if not innate musical talent?
[ The Effects of Practice ]
If innate talent doesn’t exist, how can we explain high, even exceptional, levels of achievement in performing music? HDS believe that it is a matter of music education and especially practice. Anders Ericsson and co-workers, of the Florida State University, investigated the relationship between the number of hours of practice and the level of accomplishment of student violinists in their twenties. They found that the best students training to be professional violinists had cumulated about 10,000 hours of practice over their lifetimes, compared to less than half that amount for students training to be violin teachers. The assumption here is that the former were more accomplished than the latter, which is not unreasonable given differences in career goals. The same sort of difference was found between expert and amateur pianists.3 Detailed analysis of the amount of practice vs. levels of achievement in performance attained in national music examinations has also revealed a systematic relationship: the greater the practice, the higher the achievement scores.4
In addition to these types of findings, HDS argue that even those students who are thought to be innately talented do not attain high levels of achievement without extensive study and practice, usually supported by encouragement from parents and teachers. This holds true whether the “talent” is for music, chess or art. Thus “talent” is not needed to explain levels of achievement.
[ Nature vs. Nurture ]5
The issue of talent vs. practice can readily be seen as a part of the long-standing debate on “nature vs. nurture”. Those arguing for a talent explanation emphasize “nature” while HDS and others, who argue that individual differences in music and other achievement are a matter of practice only, hold that “nurture” is the dominant factor. While everyone recognizes that genetics and environment interact, starting in utero, the difficulty in clarifying the nature of complex interactions that result in musical accomplishment tends to polarize the discussion.
The “talent advocates” point out that the inheritance of general intelligence is already known. A large number of highly detailed and controlled studies, including those of identical twins separated at birth, have shown that about 50% of individual differences in intelligence can be accounted for strictly on the basis of genetics. Environmental influences are therefore not predominant, but only the other half of the story. Moreover, they note, genetic effects are essentially ignored by HDS and other “anti-talent” scientists.
One answer that is roughly consistent with the HDS view, goes as follows. While general intelligence has a large genetic component, achievement in specific areas such as music, is a matter of experience, practice and hard work. Thus, musical achievement builds on general intelligence but there is no special genetic talent for music.
In my view, this seems reasonable to a point. But I cannot discount all accounts of child prodigies; there are too many that are well-documented. While it is a fact that Mozart did not compose great music until he had about 15 years of training and experience, even his first compositions were extraordinary for a child of 5 or 6. So was his ability at the harpsichord.
A constant theme in the research literature (also reflected in many prior articles in MuSICA Research Notes) is that all infants are born with far greater musical capabilities than widely recognized. So in this sense, we all have musical talent. (But, of course, this deflates “talent” as an explanation of individual differences.) All infants exhibit interest in music and musical sounds; indeed, parents and others communicate with infants musically, until they are old enough to understand our words. But we cannot easily deny that there are vast individual differences in musical achievement. Would Wolfgang Mozart have become a musical giant had he been raised in a house without music, without the dominant influence of his father, the musician Leopold? We can’t know.
In any event, there may be a middle ground, one that both HDS and their critics might embrace. This is to agree with HDS that the “explanation” of musical talent has been overworked, that by itself it offers little insight into musical accomplishment. On the other hand, we can’t yet discount the possibility that there may be a genetic disposition which will give some a “head start” toward achievement in music. This might consist of a genetically produced enlarged auditory cortex, resulting in greater sensitivity to and appreciation of patterns of sound. When combined with a strong musical environment, not merely of sound but also of performance, the tendency of infants and children to imitate their parents, and others, would produce increased interest in music and motivation to make music.
However, the brain hyper-development would likely be fairly rare, as can be the case with other genetically-controlled rare features, such as differently colored eyes within a child. This account could help explain prodigies, such as Mozart, without invoking “musical talent” as the unsatisfactory explanation for musical achievement in general. In short, using exceptional individuals, such as Mozart, as standards, is misleading because it forces us to accept one of two conclusions, both of which are dubious. Either we deny Mozart’s musicality at an early age or we accept differing levels of innate talent for everyone. The first conclusion is not accurate and the second appears to doom most people to low or no achievement in music.
[ Educational Implications of Belief in “Musical Talent” ]
I’ve already mentioned a negative effect of believing in a lack of self talent — the readiness to give up. I think a factor critical in my own experience is also of general relevance. It is an expectation, perhaps unconscious, of how well one should be able to play after taking lessons and practicing. These expectations are probably often unreasonably high. When I started piano lessons, I did not use other beginning piano students as my model for expectation, but rather the performances of professional pianists, taken from radio and recordings. Of course, I didn’t expect to match their playing, but only to be able to play in a reasonably smooth manner. Listening to their music did not produce a picture in my mind of all those sharps, flats and other “tricky” factors in a score. Perhaps if I had more realistic expectations, based on hearing how students played after six months or a year, the gap between expectation and reality would not have had such a negative effect.
Unrealistic expectations coupled with a belief in “musical talent” are a potent combination. Practicing would reveal my talent and if I didn’t accomplish what I expected, then I just didn’t have the talent.
Many in education argue that training in music should be directed to those who display talent. HDS have this to say in response: “…imagine the outcry if such arguments were put forward in relation to early education in basic mathematics or reading skills”. The flip side of the talent concept is that students may assume that they have little personal responsibility for poor achievement, because their “lack of talent” is not their fault. I probably fell into this trap of not working harder when my “talent” didn’t emerge.
[ Where Do We Stand on “Musical Talent”? ]
Our understanding of factors that determine the level of achievement in music is certainly incomplete. Research on both the brain and behavior is necessary. Meanwhile, should we continue to support Folk Psychology in believing in innate musical talent? As we have seen, this belief has very real consequences. Both sides of the issue do have one belief in common, a belief grounded in science as well as in experience. Whether or not one has “musical talent”, achievement requires intensive and sustained study. Therefore, we can simply focus on this requirement, ignoring claims of “musical talent” as a guide for music education and personal decisions. All music students, of whatever age, can set their sights on the “Carnegie Hall” of their choice, not in terms of expert, public performance, but in terms of realistic levels of personal satisfaction. We should take the New York cop’s advice … and “practice, practice, practice”.
— N. M. Weinberger
1 The debate at issue is contained in the journal The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1998, vol. 21, pages 399-422. This journal presents a lead article followed by commentary (pro and con) from many scientists, concluding with rebuttals from the authors of the lead article. The article by Howe, Davidson and Sloboda is entitled “Innate Talents: Reality or Myth”.
2 Howe, J.A., Davidson, J.W., Moore, D.G. and Sloboda, J.A. (1995). Are there early childhood signs of musical ability? Psychology of Music, 23: 162-176.
3 Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T. and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100: 363-406.
4 Sloboda, J.A., Davidson, J.W., Howe, M.J.A. and Moore, D.G. (1996). The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. British J. Psychology, 87: 287-300.
5 Space limitations and other considerations prevent a detailed summary of all views that are contrary to those of HDS. Many are highly technical in nature and not suitable for a general newsletter on music research. Therefore, I have focused on the single issue of “nature-nurture” and the inheritance of intelligence, which seems most relevant to the readership of MRN. My presentation of this issue is taken from the Commentaries on the HDS lead article, without citing individual authors because several authors make the same or similar points. No slight is intended and the interested reader is encouraged to read the original article and commentaries. See footnote #1 for the source of this material.
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To The Point
Copyright © 2001 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.
MUSICAL TALENT: REAL OR A MYTH?
The belief in musical talent is widespread and powerful. Everyone has an extensive belief system about human behavior; this is often called “Folk Psychology”. We act on our beliefs, assuming that they are correct. But we act on them even if they are actually wrong. Folk Psychology very often does not give an accurate picture of human behavior, of our makeup or the reasons why we do certain things. Are beliefs about musical talent accurate? Should people drop out of music because they have been born without enough musical talent?
The entire concept of talent in general, including musical talent, is being seriously questioned by scientists. Three English workers have taken the position that talent is a “myth”. Richard Howe of the University of Exeter, Jane Davidson of the University of Sheffield and John Sloboda of Keele University have examined the evidence that talent exists and concluded that this concept does not explain high levels of achievement in music or anything else. If innate talent doesn’t exist, how can we explain high, even exceptional, levels of achievement in performing music? The authors cite studies showing that it is simply a matter of practice, the more practice, the higher level of musical competence.
Whether or not “musical talent” exists or is a convenient myth, all workers agree that achievement requires intensive and sustained study. Therefore, we can simply focus on this activity, ignoring claims of “musical talent” as a guide for music education and personal decisions. [source: Howe, M.J., Davidson, J.W. and Sloboda, J.A., (1998), Innate talents: Reality or myth? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 21:399-442]
EVERYONE IS MUSICAL: THE BRAIN TELLS US SO
Most people don’t think that they are musical. This belief interferes with their desire to learn to play an instrument. New brain research shows that while people may not know that they are inherently musical, their brains know. Stefan Koelsch, Toma Gunder Angelea Friederici and Erich Schroger, music scientists in Germany, “asked” the brains of non-musicians whether they were able to distinguish complex musical elements. In this case, they recorded brain responses while subjects heard sequences of chords. The chord sequence set up unconscious musical expectancies or contexts, which were disturbed by the rare presentation of a chord that was not harmonically related to the context.
The authors discovered that the unconsciously unexpected chord produced a distinctive electrical response in the brain, showing that even the brains of non-musicians construct, perhaps automatically, harmonic expectancies and monitor incoming sounds to determine whether or not they fit the harmonic context. This sophisticated brain “knowledge” might be hard-wired, so that it does not require experience. More likely, simple exposure to Western tonal music may be enough for the brain to extract rules of harmonic composition and automatically compute the types of chords that should be heard. Regardless of the cause, it is clear that we are inherently musical. [source: Koelsch, S., Gunter, T., Friederici, A.D. and Schroeger, E., (2000), Brain indices of music processing: “Nonmusicians” are musical. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12:520-541]
INFANTS HAVE MUSIC PREFERENCES AT TWO DAYS OF AGE
Increasingly, evidence continues to support the conclusion that music is part of our normal human biological heritage. Much of the research comes from the study of infants. In almost all such studies, the infants are several months old when tested. Now, Nobuo Masataka of Kyoto University has extended investigation to infants only two days after birth. He asked if such newborns already had musical preferences. The parents of the infants were congenitally deaf and communicated only by sign language. Therefore, the infants were not exposed much, if at all, to human voices or songs while in utero.
Specifically, Dr. Masataka presented a visual object to the infants. If they turned and looked at it, a song was produced from a loudspeaker. There were two types of play songs, those that were recorded when previously sung to other infants, and those recorded when they were sung to adults. It is known that song production differs in subtle ways, depending upon whether the same song is sung to infants or to adults. Dr. Masataka measured the amount of time two day olds looked at the stimulus, when it was followed by an infant-directed version vs. an adult-directed version. He discovered that infants preferred to hear songs directed toward infants.
The findings shows that two-day-old infants have distinct preferences for music that are based on subtle differences in song delivery, although they had neither pre-natal nor post-natal experience. Therefore, the author believes that infants develop and are born with an innate preference for a certain type of music, the type they are likely to hear from their parents. [source: Masataka, N., (1999), Preference for infant-directed singing in 2-day-old hearing infants of deaf parents. Developmental Psychology, 35:1001-1005]
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