Are You Musically Talented - Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell

Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell (2016)

Chapter 8. Are You Musically Talented?


A lot of people would like to take their love of music one step further by learning how to play an instrument, but they are put off by the idea that they don’t have the required talent. This is a shame because, as this chapter will show, this “I haven’t got the talent” worry is irrelevant. The strange truth is that most professional musicians haven’t got any innate musical talent either.

The word “talent” can be used in several ways, but the two most common reasons people use it are:

1. Wholesome pride in someone else’s skill. (“Yes, my wife and I are very proud of little Jessica’s talent for seal hunting. Here’s the club we gave her for her eighth birthday.”)

2. A peculiar combination of pride, laziness, and the bitter resentment at the unfairness of life that we all feel from time to time. (“No, I wasn’t picked for the team. My idle brother was—but he just has a natural talent for the game.”)

In both cases the talent is assumed to be a gift that people are born with. They deserve a little bit of credit for it, but not too much, because it’s just the luck of the draw. Some people have curly hair, and some people have a talent for ice sculpture.

Music is a field in which the word “talent” is bandied about a lot: the world is full of “talented” violinists, conductors, and rock guitarists. Obviously no one is born with the ability to play the violin; like everyone else, a talented person must learn the instrument. But the general view is that those with talent will learn much faster and more easily and become far more proficient than the pitiable untalented folks could ever be.

Well—I have good news and bad news.

The good news: talent is mostly myth. So now you can take even more pride in your heroes and children, as they probably weren’t born with extra skills.

The bad news: talent is mostly myth. So now you no longer have an “I’m not musically talented” excuse not to start those piano lessons you’ve always thought would be pointless in your case.

But what on earth can I mean? Some people are clearly better at music than others. So if they’re not talented, what are they?

Let me tell you a story.

In 1992 a team of researchers in the UK decided to do some serious research into musical talent. Professor John Sloboda and his team investigated 257 young musicians who ranged in ability from those who had studied an instrument for only a few months and had given up, to those who were actively training to be professionals.1

Fortunately for the researchers, they had access to an accurate measure of the abilities of the individuals involved—the UK grade system. If you take music lessons in the UK, you are encouraged to take grade exams every year or so until you reach the top grade, grade 8. At this level you are pretty good at your instrument and capable of giving a concert or playing at your sister’s wedding without engendering cringing embarrassment all round. This is also the grade that is a requirement for studying at most music colleges.

So the researchers knew the musical education performance history of 257 young musicians of different levels of ability, and they knew when they had passed their various grade exams, so they could compare how good they all were.

The subjects of the study were divided into five groups:

The top group of musicians had gained entry to a high-level music college by taking part in a competition. These people were training to be professional musicians. We’ll call them the “A group.”

The B group students were good musicians but they hadn’t done well enough in the competition to get into the college.

The C group students were serious about music and had thought about applying to the college, but eventually decided against entering the competition.

The D group students were learning a musical instrument for fun but weren’t considered (by themselves or anyone else) to be music college material.

The E group students had started learning an instrument but had given up.

It sounds pretty obvious that the A group of students, who succeeded in the competition and ended up training to be professionals, would, on average, be more talented than the B group, who would be more talented than the C group, and so on. So Professor Sloboda and his colleagues donned their computers and booted up their lab coats to look at how quickly the talented students rose through the grades compared to their less gifted compatriots.

When they looked at the figures and interviewed the students and their parents, they found what they expected: the high achievers did get through their grades faster than the others. After three and a half years of training, the A group had, on average, achieved grade 3, whereas, in the same amount of time, the C group had only achieved grade 2.

But when the academics looked a little closer, they began to suspect that talent was not the key to success. The numbers showed that, on average, the group A musicians needed almost exactly the same number of hours of practice as any of the other groups in order to pass the next grade exam. The average amount of practice any of the students had to put in to get from grade 1 to grade 2 was two hundred hours, no matter what group they were in. To get from grade 6 to grade 7 took on average eight hundred hours of practice. The average total amount of practice needed for any of the students to go from total beginner to achieving grade 8 was just over three thousand hours (although, of course, they didn’t all go that far).

The conclusion was simple: the more you practice, the faster you become a good musician. The only “gift” the A group students had was the gift of diligence: they started off practicing more than the other groups and also increased the amount they practiced as the years progressed. This group started off doing about half an hour’s practice a day in their first year of learning their instrument, and increased to over an hour a day by their fourth year. The lower-achieving students started off doing less than half an hour and didn’t increase the amount of practice time much in subsequent years. (For example, group D started at only fifteen minutes a day and rose to the dizzying heights of twenty minutes over those initial four years.)

On average, group A students weren’t especially talented; they just put in more hours of work every week.

The results of the Sloboda study were confirmed by another group of psychologists, who carried out a study of music students in Berlin in the early 1990s.2 The researchers began the project by asking the staff of the Music Academy of West Berlin to rank their violin students into three groups—let’s call them excellent, good, and ordinary. The researchers then analyzed how all the students spent their time on an hour-by-hour basis and also looked into the history of their musical training. They found that the students were very similar in many ways. They had all started their training at about the age of eight, and they all spent about fifty hours a week involved in various musical activities.

The only big difference between the groups was how much solo practice they did. The excellent students had, on average, 7,410 hours of solo practice under their belts by the time they were eighteen years old, compared to 5,301 hours for the good students and only 3,420 hours for the ordinary ones. These figures fit in well with the generally accepted rule that just about anybody can achieve a professional standard in nearly any skilled activity—from athletics to zoology—if they put about 10,000 hours of practice into it (and in case you’re wondering, 10,000 hours is equivalent to about four hours a day, every day, for seven years).

For those of you who were keen on the concept of talent and resent the idea that musical achievement can largely be attributed to simple, boring hard work, please don’t forget, this makes the high achievers more admirable—not less.

When parents proudly describe the musical talent and potential of their beloved offspring, they are, without realizing it, actually talking about how well the child has already progressed on the instrument in question.3 They don’t point at little Henry before he’s laid his sticky fingers on a violin and say, “He looks like he would be a marvelous violinist.” They actually wait until the child has acquired some skills and then declare his genius for playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Smoke on the Water.” They seem to have forgotten the weeks of squeaks and all the hard work involved.

The key to acquiring high-level musical skills is something called deliberate practice. The more deliberate practice you do, the better you get—and this applies to any skillful activity. But deliberate practice is not the same thing as ordinary practice. Ordinary practice often involves simply repeating something you can already do pretty well. Deliberate practice, by contrast, means that you are taking a step forward. You are doing something you find difficult—and once you have mastered it, you will be a step nearer to perfecting your skill. One of the defining characteristics of deliberate practice is that generally it isn’t fun—which is why excellence is rare.

The film producer Sam Goldwyn once famously said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,”* and for musicians this could be reworded as “The harder I work, the more talented I get.”

But that’s not the whole story.

You may have noticed that I’ve only been referring to the average behavior of the various groups so far. But there were some students who were far from average for their group. Some students spent a lot more time practicing than the average for their group, and some were successful even though they practiced far less. One of the most interesting results of this survey was that in every group there were “a handful of individuals”4 who were successfully passing their grade exams even though they were putting in less than a fifth of the average hours of practice within their group. If talent really exists, it must be among this lot.

But what is the nature of their talent? Are they talented at music? Or are they talented at practicing effectively? And why, if they are so talented, aren’t they all in the A group?

We might be picky and say that they are just better at practicing. Maybe in every one hundred hours of practice they manage to cram in ninety hours of deliberate practice, whereas the others achieve only thirty hours. Maybe they enjoy the challenge of deliberate practice—the tedium of repeating a difficult passage until it’s fast and smooth. But in that case, wouldn’t this just be a different definition of talent? The usual definition of the word is “natural ability,” and this could easily apply to a natural ability to do the work involved.

John Sloboda and his team also looked into the influence of the first music teacher the students had as children.5 They found that one of the most important factors in the eventual achievement of professional-level playing was how much fun a student’s first teacher was, and how friendly. Later on in their training the fun factor was less important than how skilled the teacher was, but it’s fairly clear that in the early stages, kids will work harder to please a teacher they like. The reverse is also true: I have met lots of people who gave up musical instruments at an early age because they were taught by people who would have been more at home working for the secret police of a particularly insensitive fascist state.

In 2003 psychologists Susan Hallam and Vanessa Prince asked over a hundred professional musicians to complete the sentence “Musical ability is…” and found that the vast majority of the replies they received centered on words like “learned” and “developed.” Non-musicians, answering the same question, tended to finish the sentence with phrases implying that there was some sort of natural gift involved.6

However we define it, there obviously are some people who are musically talented—but they are few and far between, even among professional musicians. John Sloboda’s results imply that only about ten members out of the hundred or so who make up a symphony orchestra could truly be considered talented. In most cases this simply means that they achieved the same (very high) level of playing as their colleagues with far less practice. In a very few cases, however, they put in the same number of hours as their peers and became solo instrumental stars.

The proud parents of the other 90 percent of highly skilled professional musicians probably described them as talented, but this description is wrong. It would be far more accurate simply to give them the credit they deserve for all the work they put in.

At the other end of the spectrum from people misusing the word “talent” are those who inaccurately declare themselves “tone-deaf.” Tone deafness is a problem—or at least a musical disadvantage—for those who really have it, but thankfully it’s quite rare.

Tone deafness

Tone deafness—more formally known as amusia—is an inability to perceive or reproduce melodies. You can either be born with amusia or you can become “amusic” as a result of brain damage. According to the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia test, which checks your perception of the various components of melody (rhythm, key, contour, etc.), only two or three people out of every one hundred are amusic.

In Western music the smallest jump in pitch in a tune is a semitone, the distance between two adjacent notes on a piano. If two notes a semitone apart are played one after the other, most of us find it easy to tell which one of the two is higher. In fact, most infants can judge between two notes that are only half a semitone apart.7

It’s possible to make the jump in pitch between two notes much smaller than a semitone by tuning two strings on a harp until they are almost the same pitch. If we did this, starting with a semitone and making the pitch difference smaller and smaller, there would come a point at which a normal listener couldn’t tell which of the two notes was the higher one. Eventually you could make the jump so small that it would baffle even an expert listener. As long as the jumps between pitches in the melodies we hear are a semitone or more (and they always are), we can spot the differences in pitch between the notes and follow the ups and downs of a tune. We can then remember the tune and sing it if we want to. If the jumps in pitch were much smaller, though, we would run into trouble.

For example, let’s imagine that we have tuned a standard forty-seven-string orchestral harp so that each string is much less than a semitone higher in pitch than the one next to it. In this situation, harp string number two is only a tiny bit higher in pitch than string one, and string three is a tiny bit higher than string two, etc. If someone plays us a “tune” on this thing, we will have two problems. If the tune involves plucking adjacent or nearby strings, we won’t be able to follow whether the pitch is going up or down between notes. Also, if there is a big jump in the tune from, say, string four to string thirty-five, we’ll hear that the second note is higher, but we won’t be able to tell if it involves string thirty-five or thirty-six or thirty-four; we’ll just know that it’s somewhere in the mid-thirties. So if music used really small pitch jumps, half the time we wouldn’t know what was going on at all, and the rest of the time we would have only a vague idea.

This is what standard music is like if you have amusia. The problem for amusics is that even a semitone is too small a jump for them. They find jumps of around a semitone so small that the notes can’t be clearly distinguished. Bigger jumps are more obvious but can only be estimated inaccurately. So if someone with amusia tries to sing a song they’ve just heard, they are flying blind. Sometimes they don’t know whether the tune goes up or down next, and if they do know which way it goes, they can make only a rough estimate of how big the jump in pitch is.

How talented are you?

The unfortunate two or three people in every hundred who have amusia obviously have a serious disadvantage when it comes to listening to, or trying to create, music—so they could be considered musically untalented. At the other end of the scale we find an equally small number of lucky buggers who acquire musical skills quickly and easily. Whether or not this is because they are simply more efficient at practicing, we don’t know, but we do know that the ability is not always linked to eventual high achievement.

We also know that the vast majority of professional musicians had to put in thousands of hours of practice to acquire the skills involved.

Whether or not you are a musician at the moment, the statistics speak for themselves. Musicianship is almost certainly within your grasp if you start teaching yourself or taking lessons—but make sure you get a teacher you like, and that you’re having fun in the lessons. If you’re going to teach yourself, make sure you enjoy the book or website you’re using. The early months are quite tough because it’s all new, so everything you do falls under the definition of deliberate practice (which, as we know, is not fun). But after the initial trials and tribulations, it all becomes much more enjoyable.

I’ve mentioned that it generally takes about ten thousand hours of practice to become a professional musician, but if you have no intention of performing at Carnegie Hall, you can get to the point where you really enjoy playing in just a few weeks. If you make it your New Year’s resolution to do just a couple of hours’ music practice a week, you’ll be able to play a couple of pieces for your friends by springtime.

Those of you who are interested in making a start and have access to a keyboard or piano might enjoy a video I made on YouTube, rather bravely titled “Learning to improvise at the piano in an afternoon—for people who can’t play the piano, can’t read music, and don’t know how to improvise.”

If you have any feedback for me at the end of the afternoon in question, please feel free to email me at and I will try to answer any questions you might have.