This is the cry of many people I encounter, and on the surface it might very well seem true. Perhaps other people seem to be able to hear music better, or pick up how to play an instrument faster. Surely they must be more “musically talented” than others?
Well, actually, that’s not really true. There is no real objective thing called “musical talent”. There’s not a whole lot of research into it, but this post collates a whole lot of the evidence so far to point out some key things (these are quotes from the linked article):
- Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
- Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching
- Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and “deliberate practice”
- Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains — not from birth but as a direct result of training
Ok, so if what scientific research there is struggles to identify any objective thing we could call musical talent, why do some people find musical skills easier than others? We could ask that about any skill, but here are some reasons that apply particularly to music.
1. People who seem to be “musically talented” developed key skills very young.
When we’re very young we have amazing aural and linguistic capacity. Human babies are born with the ability to form the sounds needed for any language – we can pitch our tone of voice or make strange clicks. As we develop language skills, we lose the ability to make the sounds we don’t need. A child from an African culture which speaks in a click language will keep the ability to make five or six different clicks with their mouth, while we native English speakers only really use one sound. A child who grows up speaking Thai will learn to control the pitch of their voice as they speak to communicate the different words with the same sounds, while native English speakers learn to use pitch to communicate emotion. Many of these skills are also useful for music, so it’s quite likely that children who are exposed to environments that use these skills retain them better and then find learning music much easier.
Even without considering the retention of skills from birth, the younger someone starts learning, the more quickly they learn and the longer they are likely to retain the information and abilities. Ever wondered why Mozart was so amazing? He was sat down at a piano as soon as he could sit up, and taught to play at a younger age than most children in the Western world even go to nursery school. He was also not sent to school, but educated at home, which meant he could dedicate more hours to practice than anyone else. This brings us neatly to point two.
2. People who seem to be “musically talented” dedicate more time to music, and that time is quality time.
You want to know why that fifteen-year-old from China can play the piano better than you can? He’s probably spent three or more hours practicing for every one you have. Music is a bit of a numbers game. The “ten thousand hours” statistic is dubious in its accuracy, but it certainly reinforces the rule that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon in four to five hours if all you’re doing is taking a leisurely jog around the park for twenty minutes a couple of times a week, but people often think musicians can pick up an instrument and play brilliantly while putting in similar effort. Talented musicians simply put in the hours needed to be masters.
Talented musicians also know how to use their time effectively. If your music practice involves you flipping through a few books and idly playing anything you fancy, then you’re going to progress more slowly than someone who focuses in on one thing at a time, and works on the difficult bits rather than avoiding them. Music practice can be quite boring! I once heard someone say that “if your family aren’t sick of you playing that bar again then you’ve not played it enough”. For help and advice on developing quality practice habits, click here.
3. People who seem to be “musically talented” may have other abilities or disabilities which affect their musicality.
Music isn’t actually a thing in itself that one can be talented at. It’s actually more of a combination of different abilities. Musicians require aural skills – the ability to hear and understand music clearly, but they also require physical skills and intellectual abilities. People who appear to be talented musicians may have great ears that can hear intervals precisely, and predict what makes sense. Or, someone who makes rapid progress might have particularly flexible hands, good fine motor control, or great co-ordination. Other people might bring their intellectual abilities – an ability to understand what the music is about.
There will be some people who find music difficult because they have disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, can affect music reading. Other people have physical problems – anything from paralysis or amputated hands, to severe allergies or a lactose intolerance – that might affect their ability to play or sing. None of these things make it impossible to learn to play as many disabled musicians demonstrate. Musicians can learn to play the piano with only one hand, or learn to read braille music because they are blind, or rely on vibration to play because they’re deaf. It really puts the complaints of those of us who are able-bodied into perspective doesn’t it?
4. People who seem to be “musically talented” are in love with music.
Being a musician is a lot like being married (or in a long-term relationship). Some days you are the happiest person in the world, and feel the glow of love. Other days, you wonder why you ever picked this life and seriously consider giving it all up. Ultimately, though, you know once upon a time you said “yes”. You fell in love, and you decided that love was worth fighting for.
So here’s the truth of the matter: ‘Musical Talent’ isn’t real. To become that person with musical talent, you just have to suck it up and put in the hours of quality time. It’s that simple. Not everyone will want to do it, and not everyone will be willing to overcome the physical and mental challenges you will face along the way. But if you want to, it is possible. Even for you.
(And if you do want to start the journey – check out my posts on choosing a teacher to help you on your way)