Musical ability - is it all just practice?

When marvelling at the world's great talents, whether in music, sport or literature, it's easy to conclude that these characters are simply born gifted. But that's unfair. Take a closer look and you'll see these people practice. A lot. In fact, the Swedish expertise expert Anders Ericsson has argued that the difference between an average and an elite musician is entirely down to practice, nothing else. Put the time in and you could be Mozart too, so the logic goes.

Is Ericsson right? Joanne Ruthsatz at Oberlin College and colleagues tested the intelligence, musical ability and practice habits of 178 high school band members and 83 elite conservatory music members.

Results were mixed. Among the high-school band members, musical achievement was predicted by practice, but also by general intelligence and musical aptitude (in terms of tone and rhythm perception skills). Moreover, all three of these factors were higher among the elite conservatory members, thus suggesting that musical achievement rests on a mixture of hard work and inherent talent.

However, among just the elite conservatory musicians, it was practice habits alone that differentiated the very highest achievers from the less successful. This suggests that once a certain amount of innate talent is in place, only practice makes the difference to the ultimate degree of success obtained. Unfortunately the limitations of the study mean we can't know for sure if this is correct. The researchers cautioned that the elite conservatory members all had extremely high intelligence and musical aptitude by virtue of their having gained a conservatory place, meaning there was very little variation in these factors between individuals.

Practice can be the crucial mediating factor in the acquisition of expert performance, the researchers concluded, 'but only after the group in question has been selected for general intelligence and musical ability. Thus we are forced to conclude that not everyone can be Mozart, even if they start young and practice intensively.'

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchRUTHSATZ, J., DETTERMAN, D., GRISCOM, W., CIRULLO, B. (2008). Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice. Intelligence, 36(4), 330-338. DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2007.08.003
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