The origins of musical talent have been researched and examined for centuries. From the earliest debates of Plato and Aristotle to Carl Seashore’s testing of innate giftedness at the turn of the century. Neuroscientists measure the sensory experience of audiation, musical processing and brain capacities while psychologists research patterns of behaviour and observe musical ability. The debate often focuses on talent as an innate inheritance versus talent as experiential development. Can the definition of "talent" be accessible and equitable to every music student in the public education classroom, including the differentiated learner?
For Bach and Hayden musical talent was something that was gifted from above. Chosen by God, they were ordained miraculously with a virtuosic ability. This impression of musical genius has stayed with us through the centuries. Jourdain describes it as “the phenomenon of inspiration”; supporting the idea that creative geniuses have something innately special about them that sets them apart. Malcolm Gladwell has a very simple answer about where genius comes from; 10,000 hours of practice.
In his best-seller, Outliers, The Story of Success, Gladwell examines “musical genius”, and cites a research study done in the early 1990’s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson to support his theory that talent is a result of many hours of practice. The study examines the musical success and virtuosity of violin players at Berlin’s Academy of Music. Players are divided into three groups: the virtuosos/“world-class performers”; solid players who are considered to be very good, and musicians who were “never going to play professionally” but were planning on pursuing music pedagogy. (Gladwell, 32).
All students in the first group had acquired at least 10,000 + hours of practice. In comparison the musicians in the two other groups had practiced about 2,000 hours. What Ericsson discovered was that the virtuosos not only worked harder than everyone else, they actually worked much, much harder (Gladwell, 39). And this brings Gladwell to his magic number. He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert in anything.” Levitin explains that it takes the brain this much time to master any subject, and “true mastery” of the subject = 10,000 hours.
What makes Gladwell’s argument even more compelling is that in Ericsson’s study of the violin students there were no “naturals that emerged”. No student magically achieved greatness effortlessly, by some innate gift or talent. All had the enormous amount of 10,000 hours of practice behind them. In addition, the study did not uncover any “grinds”; students who had put in that amount of time and had not been successful. Gladwell’s simple theory challenges the idea that talent is simply innate and “God-given”.
Jourdain’s explanation of musical talent is a little more complex. Jourdain’s list includes: superb neurology for music, a high overall IQ, thorough training, limitless encouragement, the right kind of personality, drive, courage, rebelliousness, and, the luck of being born at the right time, in the right place (Jourdain, 186). Jourdain admits that there is no evidence that the brains of musical geniuses are any different from the average brain (187). In fact, while Jourdain acknowledges that Einstein’s brain showed double the amount of neuron support cells, he also acknowledges that his genius may just have been as easily attributable to hard work.
Both Jourdain and Gladwell eventually conclude that practice, day in and day out, especially at a young age, does not happen without encouragement; dedicated parental or guardian support, expensive music lessons, wealth to provide those lessons and opportunities where students will be mentored; perhaps placed in musical ensembles where that amount of practice is tantamount. Gladwell attributes talent to a worker bee mentality. Jourdain returns to the mysticism of “talent”, some people just seem to have it, some people don’t.
Between logging in 10,000 hours of practice and hoping to be a “have” instead of a “have not” where does that leave the differentiated learner? If Gladwell’s theory proves to be correct, that it is just a matter of 10.000 hours’ worth of practice, then talent is attainable; talent is equitable. But it’s the fine print that concerns me. The supportive parent, the moneyed family, the private music lessons, the ways and means of navigating a moneyed culture when a student is raised outside that culture.
The music educator’s problem with both of these theoretical views of talent is that it remains out of reach for the average learner in public education. Outside of having a tenacious parent who knows how to advocate for her own child’s ability, chances are a “virtuoso” without economic means or educated parents will not have the opportunity to develop their talent on an instrument. Studies show that students who are struggling in school as identified special needs learners often share socio-economic challenges that put them outside the “talent zone” (Fitzgerald, 2011).
In Kindling the Spark: Recognizing and Developing Musical Talent, the author, Joanne Haroutounian broadens the scope and definition of musical talent “that seeks to unveil potential in every classroom.” “Talent” being a possibility for every child. She emphasizes that discovering this spark and nurturing it in the classroom depends on a person's individual perspective of what constitutes musical talent.
Studies have shown that music teachers are reluctant to work with special needs children unless they have had some prior training or experience actually teaching them. (Gerrity et al.,2013, Evans et al. 2011) This perspective in music education is particularly damaging in the learning differentiated classroom. When the field of musical psychology and music education equates musical talent with innate or inherited giftedness (Howe, Sloboda, 1998) the development of talent in the classroom suffers. (Gerrity, 2013)
Researchers in expertise performance have focused on reconstructing this definition of talent towards the idea of deliberate practice. (Haroutounian, 2002) This is echoed by Gladwell’s theory of musical genius which suggests that “talent” is accessible to all through hard work. It is only useful for the music educator to question the origin of musical talent if the answer provides a foundation to advocate for the equity of music education for every student and as a fundamental component of the public education curriculum.
Children with potential talent need opportunities to allow it to develop. Music educators need to continue an active dialogue to discover and nurture this potential as well as to challenge all students to develop their talents in instrumental music in the public education classroom.
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