Nature vs. Nurture – Where Does Musical Talent

It is an age old question, whether nature or nurture shapes human beings into the people they become. As modern scientists understand it, most things are a combination of both. Musical talent requires an array of different skills, each of which can be taught and each of which is influenced to varying degrees by our genes.

The Components of Musical Talent

People who are talented with music have a set of different skills they have honed as they relate to music. Some of these are:

  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Muscle memory
  • Auditory discernment
  • Music reading

No musician would be successful without at least moderately good skills in each of these areas. As you can see, some of these skills are purely learned such as music reading, while others may be more affected by genetics, such as hand-eye coordination. However, all of them require a certain amount of ability given by genes and a lot of practice.


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The “Nature” of Musical Talent

Some things that affect musical talent are known to be genetic. People have different abilities to perform certain motor tasks, for instance, which can have a genetic background. However, most of these small differences are not as important for musicians as they might be for competitive athletes.

It is possible that some people are born more musically gifted than others. This used to be the assumption that was made about extremely talented musicians. However, even if there is the occasional musical prodigy born, there is significant evidence to support the idea that most talented musicians are taught, not born that way.

The “Nurture” of Musical Talent

Evidence from a study done with musicians in their early 20s at a German music school suggests that practice and training are far more important than any talent a person might be born with. This study had teachers group the students in most talented, moderately talented and least talented groups. The main correlation that was found was number of hours of practice time.

Another study found that British school children who were more or less successful at learning an instrument in a musical school could also be separated into groups differentiated by practice hours. There was no difference in the age the children first showed interest in music or rhythm and dance. However, the number of hours of practice invested by children who were relatively successful at learning an instrument was nearly twice as much as those who were fairly unsuccessful.

Determination: More Important Than Either?

Deliberate practice, the process of working to remove errors from performance and improve skills, requires dedication and determination. Most great athletes, artists and performers spend hours every day for years in order to become as good as they are. Whether or not they have the talent, it requires dedication and determination to stick with something that may not be fun or show obvious results for a long period of time.

There is no doubt self motivation plays a large part in whether a student sticks with their new musical hobby or not. However, friends and family who provide the needed support will greatly increases the chances of success for the student.

Nurturing Musical Talent

If determination is important to talent and mostly comes from a deep interest in the subject, then kid’s interest in music is the first step towards helping them become musically talented. Many of the world’s famous musicians came from homes where music was an important and positive part of their daily lives. A child who is exposed to music in a fun and age-appropriate way comes to associate it with positive emotions and is much more likely to be interested in playing music or performing.

A child who loves music may hear a great musician sing or play and decide there and then, that he or she wants to play or sing this same way. This intense, internal motivation is the start of how people become great. They also do need outside support. Parents who are willing to give their children resources such as instruments and lessons will nurture their child’s interest and their talents.

Nobody really knows if genes play an important part in becoming a talented musician or not. However, it is almost certain that they play a less important part than interest, determination, practice, and access to resources. Perhaps some people are born with more musical talent than others but it does not seem to be the deciding factor in who becomes a great musician.

Amanda Williams is a blogger for TakeLessons. Since 2006, TakeLessons has provided safe, affordable and fun singing and music lessons to students of all ages.  Students can find music teachers in over 2,800 cities nationwide, for 38 different types of lessons.

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