Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Musical Talent

How can we explain the vast differences in musical ability? How can one species produce Paul Simon and William Hung? Are we born with musical talent, or do we develop it? Let's sort through the research:

Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
- Two-day old infants show a preference for some music over others (N. Masataka, 1999).
- Nearly all infants babble with melody and intonation (Gardner, 1997, p. 251).
- At 1, children can often match pitch (Kessen, Levine & Peindich, 1978).
- At 1 1/2, children engage in spontaneous song (Kessen, Levine & Peindich, 1978)
- At 2 1/2, children show extended awareness of songs by others (Davidson, 1994, in R. Aiello)
While these early developments can be influenced by outside events, they clearly unfold according to a genetic blueprint.
We cannot say the same for the next phase of development:

Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching.
- "Musical development continues beyond the age of 7 or so only in an environment that provides some sort of tutelage." (Gardner, 1997, p. 253; Gardner, 1973; Winner, 1982)
- Absolute ("perfect") pitch is not a genetic accident or random occurrence, but is developed in young childhood under specific external conditions (D. Deutsch, 2004; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993).
Then, to take it to the next level, aspiring musicians need true instruction and a work ethic:

Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and "deliberate practice"
- "Talent proves of no avail in the absence of thousands of hours of practice distributed over a decade or more, as the youngster gains facility in various first- and second-order musical symbol systems. (Gardner, 1997, p. 256).
- The very best professional musicians practice the most and the smartest compared to the next best group of professional musicians, who in turn practice more and better than the third-best group (Ericsson et al, 1993). Top musicians consistently require about ten years and 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the height of their virtuoso skill-level.
- Among student musicians, the best ones also practice more than the next-best, who practice more and better than the ones who eventually drop out (Sloboda, Davidson, Howe, and Moore, 1996).
- "Deliberate practice" is qualitatively different from ordinary experience. In ordinary experience, an individual is exposed to certain task demands, spends time attaining proficiency at that task and then plateaus, more or less satisfied with his/her level of competence. Under these passive circumstances, more time spent with the same task after the plateau will not significantly increase skill-level. The skill level becomes autonomous and stable. In contrast, under a regime of deliberate practice, the individual is never quite satisfied and is always pushing a little bit beyond his/her capability, actively and incrementally expanding that capability. (Ericsson, 2006, chapter 38).
- Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and theories of innate talent, suggested that individuals pursuing a skill naturally rise to an innate limit of their capability. The work of Ericsson and others suggests that this is nonsense -- that in many if not most cases these limits are not innate but connected to the quantity and quality of training, and to an individual's level of ambition/determination.

Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains -- not from birth but as a direct result of training.
- Right-handers not trained in music show typical right-hemisphere processing, while right-handers trained in music show left-hemisphered dominance (Bever & Chiarello, 1974)
- Cortical representations of fingers of the left hands of string players get significantly enlarged compared to non-musicians -- and moreso for those who train earlier in life. (Elbert et al, 1995)
None of this, of course, rules out the possibility of innate talent. What it does do, though, is paint a rich, descriptive picture of musicianship being largely in the realm of development. After a thorough review of the research, Lehmann & Gruber state: "Taken together, it is difficult to obtain clear evidence on the role of innate abilities, despite the fact that giftedness features prominently in everyday discourse. On the other hand, much evidence exists that practice and other environmental factors have a large impact on changes in many variables related to musical performance." (p. 458.)
Can anyone be a great musician? No -- there are all sorts of limitations. Some are severely physically disabled, others intellectually disabled. Others don't have the childhood resources of encouragement and training. Others never develop the intense desire, for whatever reason. There are lots of obstacles out there. The point that I think shines through in all this research is that we need to sweep aside this old notion that most people simply don't have IT. The IT -- the greatness -- is something you acquire, not something you are given or are not given. Some may face too many obstacles to acquire IT but few are born with limitations so severe that the acquisition is inherently impossible.

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