What Makes A Musician – John Sloboda

As I was searching on the web for prior articles on what really makes a music student successful, what differentiates her from others, I found this nice writeup by John Sloboda on the European Guitar Teachers Association. Read it when you have time, it tries to separate the myth from the fact and sheds some light on the Nature vs Nurture debate for a good musician.

———Source: http://www.egta.co.uk/content/sloboda————-

VERY few people in our society achieve high levels of musical performance. Of the thousands of young people who begin to learn a musical instrument every year, only a handful reach the levels required to join a professional symphony orchestra, for instance. Most young people abandon instrumental study within a few years. Why should this be?

Many people believe that ‘musicians are born not made’: that there is some inherited ‘gift’ or ‘talent’ for music that sets a small number of people apart from birth, and destines them for musical excellence. According to this belief, the reason why the majority of people fail to make progress on an instrument is that they lack this special ‘gift’.

I want to show that the scientific evidence for such beliefs is much less secure than might be thought. I will attempt to convince you that the vast majority of the population possesses the inherited characteristics needed to perform music well, and that differences in accomplishment are mainly due to differences in experience, opportunity, motivation, and the differences in learning outcomes that follow from this. In other words, musicians are made not born, and so the question of real psychological interest is how do people become musicians.

What is involved in high-level musical performance?

Before we can address the question of how differences between people in musical skill come about, we need to know what these differences are. How do we tell an expert violinist from a novice? I find it useful to distinguish two broad types of skill, TECHNICAL and EXPRESSIVE.

Technical skills are all those skills which allow musicians to provide accurate performances. They include motor co-ordination and fluency which allow rapid musical passages to be played evenly and without hesitation. They also include perceptual skills such as pitch acuity, which allows accurate tuning. One certainly cannot be a symphony orchestra player without high levels of technical skill.

Good musicians are, however, more than fine technicians. Performances that are merely accurate reproductions of the notes on the page come across as dull and lifeless. If the interest of music lay simply in technique, then suitably programmed computers would provide a far more reliable source of good performances than human beings. Research shows that good musicians ‘add value’ to the mere notes by a whole range of expressive additions. These include slight changes in the timing, speed, loudness, pitch, and sound quality of successive notes.

These additions do not simply make the music more interesting; they actually reveal and highlight important aspects of the musical structure itself. In other words they help us tounderstand the music. Listening to music is far from a passive registration of sound. It involves attempting to work out the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure of the music. Expressive performances can help this process by accentuating important events in the structure. Research has shown that listeners find it easier to identify the intended rhythmic structure from the performances of professional pianists than from student pianists playing the same pieces.

In our discussion of the possible origin of musical skill, we need to bear in mind that these two types of skill are different, and may be caused in different ways. In many musical circles, it isexpressive capacity which is held to mark the ‘real’ or ‘gifted’ musician. Mere technical prowess does not make a master musician. I am sure that a lot of every-day talk about musicality uses ‘giftedness’ where little more is actually meant than ‘expressively accomplished’. When a music teacher describes a pupil as ‘proficient but untalented’, what is being described is a person who has more technical skill than expressive skill. When another pupil is described as ‘talented but lazy’, this is probably someone who plays expressively but cannot negotiate technically difficult passages. These descriptions actually beg the question of origin. We do not know, just from looking at two people, whether their differences in expressive skill result from differences in ‘innate talent’ or differences in experience. This is a matter for scientific investigation.

Challenges to the ‘myth’ of talent

Here are a number of facts which sit uneasily with the talent story:

  1. In several cultures studied by anthropologists, the great majority of people achieve levels of musical expertise which are far above the norms for our own society. This suggests that cultural, not biological, factors are limiting the spread of musical expertise in our own society.
  2. Musical accomplishment does not always run in families. Where children from families with no musical background are given appropriate opportunities and encouragement they can achieve outstanding results.
  3. The majority of top-ranking professional musicians were not child prodigies. In fact, studies reveal that very few able musicians showed any signs of special musical promise either in infancy, or even after they had been learning an instrument for some years.
  4. There are no clear examples of outstanding achievement in musical performance or composition that were not preceded by many years of intense preparation and practice. In the case of child prodigies, it seems their level of early practice far exceeded that of the normal musician.
  5. Many of the perceptual skills required to handle musical input are very widespread, develop spontaneously through the first ten years of life and do not seem to require formal musical instruction to develop. The skill of ‘perfect pitch’ has often been singled out as a special innate sign of ‘musical talent’. In fact, there is evidence that the skill can be learned by any determined person and is actually present in an unrefined form in as much as two-thirds of the general untrained population. Furthermore, only a minority of top-ranking musicians possess perfect pitch in its fully developed form, so it is a rather poor predictor of high achievement.

All these facts are entirely consistent with the notion that musical expertise develops from a set of basic inherited characteristics which are common to the great majority of the population. We should therefore turn to a more detailed examination of the evidence about the process of skill development.

How does high ability develop?

1. Musical experience in infancy

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that early experience can have a significant effect on the growth of musical ability. This experience can start even before birth. In studies of the early lives of high-achieving young musicians, it was found that many of the parents sang to their children (particularly at sleep time) every day from birth. Many also engaged in song games, encouraging children to dance and sing to music. Our current research indicates higher levels of such early stimulation in families of high-achieving children than in families of low-achieving children.

The effects of this kind of stimulation may not always be observable in early overt behaviour, affecting as it does the perceptual and receptive abilities of a child, but it can have a major subsequent effect on the ease with which a young person progresses in instrumental lessons.

2. High levels of practice

Recent research has shown that the best violinists at a music conservatoire had accumulated over ten thousand hours of formal practice by the age of twenty-one. This was twice the amount of practice of the less able students at the same conservatoire. These findings have now been replicated by our research group on a British sample of young musicians. Children selected for entry to a specialist music school had accumulated about twice as much practice as those children who failed the selection procedure. Both these groups had done vastly more practice than a control group of children learning instruments in a normal state school.

There appears to be no better predictor of achievement level than the amount of formal practice undertaken. This being so, it becomes particularly important to explore the ways in which very large amounts of practice can be encouraged and sustained.

3. High levels of appropriate family support

In a sample, all children selected for entry to a specialist music school had parents who took an active participatory role in music lessons and daily practice. Many parents actually supervised early practice on a moment-to-moment basis. All children in the sample reported periods of low motivation for practice, and claimed that had their parents not pushed them to practice during these periods, they probably would not have done any at all. Most parents provided high levels of material and time resource (e.g. transporting children to distant lessons, rehearsal groups, and concerts).

Many of the highest-rated children in the sample had developed a very strong sense of themselves as ‘musical’. This seemed to come about through the way in which their early musical achievements were praised and ‘made a fuss of by the immediate family. Such praise flowed most naturally from parents who were not highly proficient musicians themselves, and who were therefore genuinely impressed by their child’s modest accomplishments. Even though the notion of ‘talent’ may have little scientific foundation, belief in one’s own talent can be a powerful motivator for the continuing, sometimes gruelling, long-term engagement with practice. Unfortunately, belief that one is not ‘talented’ can have an opposite negative effect on motivation and effort.

4. Early teachers who make music lessons fun

Most children in a sample rated first teachers high on the ‘personal warmth’ dimension, using adjectives such as nice, friendly, fun and chatty to describe their teacher. Teachers were not generally judged to be excellent performers themselves and were more often ‘the nice old lady down the road’, who loved music, loved children, and was capable of communicating enthusiasm for music and liking of the child.

Many children said that they looked forward to lessons as the highlight of the week. This can be contrasted with the experience of many low achievers who remember their first lesson as unenjoyable occasions of anxiety and humiliation.

There is undoubtedly a place for teachers who stretch and challenge their pupils to go beyond what is immediately enjoyable or achievable. Such teachers, however, seem to have their greatest effect on students who are already committed to music. The task of the first teacher may be to help develop that love of music which leads to long-term commitment. An over-emphasis on performance achievement may hinder this primary task.

5. Opportunities for deep emotional responses to music

Experienced performers claim that their ability to play expressively is connected in some way to their ability to ‘feel’ how the music goes. Expressive performers are said to play ‘with feeling’ or ‘ from the heart’. In other words, their performance heightens the emotional intensity or impact of the music. Recent research on the aspects of music which move listeners most intensely has shown that these emotions are elicited by particular musical structures. Performers can enhance the emotional effects of these structures by exaggerating their emotion-bearing features. In order to do this convincingly, they must, of course, have already experienced the appropriate emotion to this music as listeners. There is evidence that the ability to experience strong positive emotion to musical structure is affected by differing childhood musical experiences.

A study of mine published three years ago showed that many children as young as seven have experienced deeply significant ‘peak’ experiences to music, which have an emotional intensity that provides strong motivations to continue engagement with music. These experiences tend to occur in relaxed non-threatening environments where nothing is being asked of the child. They tend, therefore, to occur at home, while the child is listening to music, alone or with friends. They tend not to occur at school, while performing, or in the presence of a teacher. These latter situations tend to divert the child’s emotional energy away from the music itself, and onto the demands of the situation, whether it be a demand to achieve a certain standard of performance, or a wish not to be humiliated or embarrassed by ‘making a mistake’. If children’s earliest memories of music are of the latter type then they are much less likely to develop into the highly able expressive performer. They either abandon music altogether, or develop an ‘achievement orientation’ which focuses on the emotional satisfaction to be gained from technical rather than expressive aspects of their performance.

Very many intelligent and educated adults consider themselves to be unmusical. A very large number of them have early memories of music, particularly from school, in which they were made to feel threatened or undermined in some way. A detailed analysis of the difference between such school experiences and the experiences, say, of young children in the Anang Ibibo tribe, may go a long way towards accounting for the paucity of accomplished musical performers in our own culture.

So does inheritance matter at all?

My criticism of the notion of musical ‘giftedness’ is not a denial of the importance of inheritance. Inherited genetic characteristics have a profound effect on every human behaviour. But all humans share over 99% of their genetic material with one another. The genetic similarities between all human beings far outweigh the differences between them. Clearly there is a genetic underpinning to musical ability which is species-specific. No other species begins to approach the levels of musical accomplishments available to the vast majority of human beings.

What I am questioning is not the genetic underpinning of musical ability. Rather I am questioning the assertion that differences between people in accomplishment are to be tied to the presence or absence of some quite specific set of genes which together constitute ‘a musical gift’. It is much more likely that the links between biology and musical competence, when fully understood, will turn out to be complicated, indirect, no all-or-none, and in no way corresponding to the notion of a unitary ‘blueprint for music’ that is implied by the notion of innate gifts or talents.

To date we have absolutely no idea what kind of genetic material might contribute to musical ability, nor have we any idea of the route by which differences between individuals in such contributions might become manifest in differences in musical behaviour. On the other hand, we have a number of clear, plausible, and scientifically substantiated accounts of how differences in experience between individuals can lead to large differences in ultimate levels of musical ability. Until we are forced by the evidence to adopt a more complex explanation, we would be well advised, for both scientific and humanitarian reasons, to conclude that what is currently a rare commodity in our society by no means needs to remain so, if we cared to make the necessary investments in changing our current social arrangements and the beliefs that underpin them. Indeed the National Curriculum for Music is based on the assumption that every child in the country is capable of acquiring instrumental competence by the age of fourteen. No previous curriculum has ever implied such an assumption, and if successful, this new curriculum will become the pivot of a most radical piece of social engineering. I wish it well!


Books and Papers

Sloboda J.A. The Musical Mind; the Cognitive Psychology of Music, London, Oxford University Press, 1985.

—. ‘Music as a Language’, in F. Wilson and F. Rochmann (eds), Music and Child Development,St. Louis, Miss: MMB Inc., 1990.

—. ‘Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings’, Psychology of Music,19 (1991), pp 110–120.

— & Howe, M.J.A. ‘Biographical Precursors of Musical Excellence: an Interview Study’,Psychology of Music, 19 (1991), pp 3–21.

Sosniak, L.A. ‘Learning to be a Concert Pianist’, in B.S. Bloom (ed.), Young People, New York, Ballantine, 1985.

With grateful acknowledgement to the ESTA Journal, where this article first appeared.

© 1994 John Sloboda

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