Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Are musicians born or made? Untangling whether music ability is the result of nature or nurture

Robert Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy (1997) provides readers with a solid foundation and insight into the growing field of music cognition. This book delves into a variety of areas within the field in order to provide readers with a broad look at what music cognition is all about.  However, since it’s publication in 1997, there has been a mass of research conducted on music and it’s ability to affect our minds.  One glimpse at current topics within the field shows that Jourdain’s book on “up-to-date” research on music cognition is now no longer so.
Are musicians predisposed to music ability, or does it come from music education? Are superb musicians born with a certain amount of music talent? In this essay I will attempt to answer these questions with current research in the field of music cognition. This question arose after Jourdain’s comment regarding music composers. He states that to be an exceptional composer, one must have it all: “superb neurology for music, high overall IQ, thorough training, limitless encouragement and the right kind of personality” (Jourdain, 1997, p. 186). Research supports the notion that we are born with a certain personality (Tellegen, 1988) and a level of music hearing ability (Gordon, 1998). Essentially this implies that in order to compose music successfully, one must be born with the necessary talent.  To this I ask: What about performing musicians? Can anyone become a musician with the right amount of training, or must we be born with the right qualities in order to be successful at music?
Jourdain made his statement based on the most successful composers, specifically Mozart. Therefore it seems appropriate to question whether a similar level of expertise has to be predisposed to music ability. To start, we must first clarify what it means to be an expert musician.  There are many ways to conceptualize an expert musician, and definitions are not consistent. For the purpose of this essay, I will define an expert musician as someone who is capable of a high level of technical ability, able to embody the emotion in music with ease, and has substantial music training.
            A key part of being an expert musician is that they have had music training. But the question remains, were expert musicians able to reach that level by training alone, or were they born with an ability to understand music better than others? In order to understand this better, we must now turn to recent research in the field of music cognition on natural music talent. To be musically talented does not necessarily mean one must be a musician at all.  A “non-musician” does not imply an absence of any ability to understand music; therefore it is possible that there is also no such thing as a “non-musician”. Natural music ability, or talent, may be undiscovered, or circumstances may have prevented its development (Law & Zentner, 2012). In the field of music cognition, this natural music ability has been termed “music aptitude”, a term that encompasses natural music abilities, or the innate potential to succeed as a musician (Schellenberg, 2013).  Robert Jourdain does not discuss music aptitude in his book, however it is a topic that appears to be popular in the music cognition field.
            The first musical aptitude tests were created by Carl Seashore (1915) and Edwin Gordon (1967). The intention was to determine which children were likely to succeed through music education (Gordon, 1998). However, these tests were eventually used in music cognition research as a way to better understand how both musicians and non-musicians hear music. Music aptitude is important in understanding whether musicians are born or made, because researchers have determined that individuals are born with a certain amount of music aptitude (Gordon 1965). It is possible that being born with a high music aptitude sets someone up to enjoying music lessons more, and therefore staying in them longer and reaching a higher level than someone with low music aptitude. In line with this view, is that expert musicians consistently score with higher levels of music aptitude than amateurs (Schellenberg, 2013). The important take-away from this research is that music aptitude may explain why some people are better at hearing music than others. However, research has also shown that music training can increase scores on music aptitude tests, therefore music training clearly has an impact on music ability in addition to natural music talent.
Another way to determine whether musicians are born or made is to turn to the “10,000 Hour Rule”. This term was coined by writer Malcolm Gladwell after reading a study conducted by Ericsson and colleagues (1993) which implied that ten thousand hours of practice was the magic number needed in order to become an expert (Gladwell, 2008).  This rule supports how musicians are made because it implies that in order to be an expert in any field, you must have at least 10,000 hours of practice. It also implies that if you don’t have that many hours then you can’t be an expert, or that zero hours of practice means that you are not a musician. The problem with this is that research in music aptitude has shown that even non-musicians can have a very good ear for music.
When discussing qualities that make an exceptional composer, Jourdain uses Mozart as an example. Mozart was also considered an expert performer during his childhood, and there is no way that he could have had 10,000 hours of practice at such a young age. Therefore, the 10,000 Hour Rule may not be a good enough argument for musicians being made. More support against the idea that practice can make you an expert musician can be found in recent research. In a study conducted by Macnamara, Hambrick and Oswald (2014), they found that practicing only accounted for 21% of one’s music ability, which means that other things, such as natural music talent (or aptitude), better explains music ability.
            It is clear that there is a lot of contradicting evidence on both sides of this nature versus nurture debate, so an answer cannot be as clear cut as we would hope. Recent research in the field of music cognition has found that we are all born with some level of music aptitude, suggesting that anyone can become a musician, but some are born with a better potential. The 10,000 Hour Rule suggested that you need that many hours to become an expert, but recent research does not support this claim. What we can conclude is that to become an expert performer, a high level of music aptitude is necessary.  So are musicians born or made? It is likely not just nature (music aptitude) or nurture (music training) that creates an expert musician, but rather the two together that form a winning combination in leading us to achieving a mastery of our craft.

Anvari, S.H; Trainor, LT; Woodside, J; Levy, B.A. (2002). Relations among musical
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Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Gordon, E. E. (1998). The Legacy of Carl E. Seashore. In Introduction to Research and the Psychology of Music. Chicago.

Gordon, E. (1967). The Musical Aptitude Profile. Music Educators Journal, 53, 52-54.

Ericsson, K., Krampe, R. & Tesch-Romer. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Law L.N.C, Zentner, M. (2012). Assessing Musical Abilities Objectively: Construction and Validation of the Profile of Music Perception Skills. Department of Psychology, University of York, York, United Kingdom.

Macnamara, B., Hambrick, D. & Osawald, F. (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in
Music, Games, Sports, Education and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1608-1618.

Schellenberg, G. (2013). Music and Cognitive Abilities. In D. Deutsch, The Psychology of Music, 3rd Edition (pp. 499-505).

Seashore, C. (1915). The Measurement of Musical Talent. New York: G. Schirmer.

Tellegen, Auke; Lykken, David T; Bouchard, Thomas J.; Wilcox, Kimberly J.; Segal, Nancy L.; Rich, Stephen(1988). Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together. Journal of Personality and Psychology , 54(6), 1031-1039.


Susan Raponi said...

Talk about wifi brain. I just posted my blog on the exact same topic!

Bradley Christensen said...

Good question! And it seems it will continue to be a topic of discussion. It was interesting to see how I reacted as I read your post. The further I read, the more impatient I became. I wondered when I would get an answer, and because it became clear at the end that it is likely a combination of nature and nurture, I felt a little let down. I had taken on the mentality of a child who was waiting to win a prize only to discover that it had to be shared with someone else. And the good news is I actually got an answer – a great one. So please know this had nothing to do with your examination, because I thought the points were made were spot on!

I liked what you said – “to be musically talented does not necessarily mean one must be a musician at all.” Many people are “musical,” but haven’t explored the performance of it, or the act of writing it, simply because the opportunities weren’t there. And like anything, mastery over that skill takes time (hence your referral to 10,000 hours). Therefore, a musician is both born and made! I would like to think that anyone could become a musician, but I am reminded of those who are tone deaf who find music to be intrusive and ugly noises. You argue both sides of the coin, and so it brings a balance to the discussion. I enjoyed reading your post immensely.