Day after day

Is musical ability something you are born with or does it come with practice?

Could anyone, given the opportunity, become a concert pianist, or are there a select few with the potential to excel?

A would-be musician must learn a new set of skills: generic skills such as reading music and specific skills associated with a chosen instrument. Across many areas of human endeavour, after initial training, further improvements tend to be gradual, peaking after many years’ effort – exactly when depending on the skill being learned. Typically, performance then declines slightly in later life. So an elite performer will generally take at least a decade – and often much longer – to reach their peak.

Enhanced skills seem to depend on deliberate practice – repeatedly attempting specified tasks, assessing performance and striving for improvement. The aim is to prevent playing becoming ‘automated’ – mastered to the point that it no longer requires active cognitive thought. Although automation is an important step in mastering an instrument, to develop further a player must actively strive to enhance their performance. Simply rehearsing a piece hundreds of times will not necessarily lead to improvements.

Typically, reaching the level needed to win international competitions means devoting more than 10,000 hours to deliberate practice.

The 10,000 hours concept was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, but it originally comes from a study of German violin students, which found that elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20, while lesser players did just 4,000 hours.

But given the occurrence of musical prodigies and the way musical ability seems to run in families, from the Bachs to the Jacksons, others place more significance on innate talent.

A genetic study of isolated Finnish populations found evidence for genes associated with musical aptitude
on chromosomes 4 and 8. This and other evidence suggests that innate musical ability will vary between individuals in a population.

Several studies indicate that the amount of testosterone a baby is exposed to in the womb may affect his or her musical aptitude. And tone deafness – the absence of any musical aptitude – seems in particular to be genetically determined. Eighty per cent of tone deafness is genetic, according to Dr Tim Spencer of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, who has analysed the phenomenon in twins.

Given the diversity of tasks involved in musical aptitude – including playing, reading, composing and conducting music – it’s perhaps unsurprising that scientists have struggled to isolate a ‘musical gene’.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in June 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development