Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Musical Talent

The post on the Bach family and a commentor got me thinking. Musical talent seems like such an obvious thing. Every time we read the biography of a musician we are likely to run across some indication that they have a special, i.e. inborn, talent. Is this so? This blogger doesn't think so. I have been a music teacher for many years and have had many different kinds of students. Some indeed seem to have a real facility, while others had to struggle for every advance. Some people have perfect pitch, others do not. Some have agile fingers, others do not. But here is an academic article questioning the whole idea of musical talent and suggesting that the idea is counter-productive to disciplined study: "practice, practice, practice".

Let me muse a bit. My mother was a fiddler who played entirely by ear. When I was a child there was a musical instrument case under and behind every piece of furniture in the house. She had fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins and even an upright piano. On occasion other musicians would drop by for a session. I took all this for granted, really. My interest didn't really get piqued until a pianist who could read music came by and I watched him sight-reading. Now that was interesting! How in heck do those dots get converted into sound? The music my mother and her friends played, jigs and reels, never really caught my interest. What did was birdsong. We lived in the wilds of northern Canada and I used to love to wander in the woods and listen to birds. My version of ear-training was trying to imitate their calls.

When I was eleven, my mother signed me up for piano lessons, but I never quite got interested and kept forgetting to go to the lesson. I think it was the repertoire that turned me off... When I was fifteen for some reason I started to listen to records. At first pop music and popular classics as that was all we had. Then I got the urge to play guitar. I started playing bass guitar in a band. I also wrote a lot of songs. Bob Dylan was a big influence. One day I got the urge to write songs with orchestral accompaniment, don't remember why. I realized that those guys needed everything written down, so I taught myself musical notation. I don't think I know of anyone else who has done that, offhand. When I showed the score to a music teacher all he said was, "normally, the accidentals go before the notes!" Heh.

When I got a real exposure to classical music, in my late teens, I set out to become a classical guitarist. But I always composed on the side. Often years would pass between compositions. But looking  back now, some of them were not too bad. I just didn't think that was my real vocation. Now I do.

What do I think about musical talent? Well, some people do seem to have a real facility. But I think that what really matters is interest and discipline. You have to be really interested in what you are doing. This leads to wanting to do it well, which leads to discovering how to work: discipline. The biggest enemy you have is probably yourself: lack of self-confidence and emotional turmoil can really blind you to what you are doing wrong.

So I guess that while musical talent obviously does exist, the implications of it probably don't matter as much as you think. In the absence of interest and discipline it is worthless and with a lot of interest and discipline, you can pretty much make up for it. Occasionally through a confluence of talent, early exposure, being born into a musical family and being born at a time when all the historical forces seemed to be in harmony, you get a Mozart. But if Mozart had been born into a different family at a different time, his talents would probably have counted for much less.

Put it this way, if you play interesting music in an interesting way, I'll listen to you!


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. Innate musical talent is undeniably a prerequisite for greatness. It's a requirement but one of many. Let's say that in any group of 10,000 people in the world, there is one person with the innate ability of Bach. (The plethora of painting geniuses in Renaissance Florence shows that this number is unlikely to be much bigger.) The likelihood of Bach is less than one in 1 billion (to restrict ourselves to 1000 years of Western music and assuming that Bach is the greatest and that the total population over 1000 years of Western history is over one billion, which must be the case), not one in 10,000. So assuming all these variables are independent (a big if, I know), we need to explain the remaining 1/100,000 likelihood. I think the rest is culture and character.

Character? Bach was possessed with an urge to please God -- sounds a little pokey to us now, but that gave him supreme self-confidence. Bach, like Mozart, didn't have the slightest doubt that he was the world's greatest musician. He was also a workaholic, doing in one week singlehandedly what rock bands take years to do collectively. Finally, his curiosity was insatiable, always on the lookout for new musical ideas from any direction.

Culture? Like Renaissance painters, Bach absorbed (through his upbringing and his work ethics) an enormously rich musical repertoire. As you pointed out, his time (and especially Mozart's) were golden ages of music, which attracted all the top artistic talents in Europe.

If innate ability is 1/10K but supreme greatness is 1/1billion, this means that genes account for only for a fraction (1/100K)/(1/10K)= 1/10. In other words genes are 10% of the story and the rest is 90%.

Conclusion: every year New York City produces a baby with the DNA of a Bach. And most likely that kid will be turned off music or will be too poor to pursue her talent or too greedy to give up a banking career, and will grow up to be a complete mediocrity.

In other words many many stars need to line up to produce Bach and genes are only 1 star in a 10-star constellation.

Or something like that.

** Numbers used for illustration and not for scientific purposes...

Anonymous said...

Clarification: I reread my comment and see an ambiguity. "this number is unlikely to be much bigger" refers to the number 10,000. Top-notch genes cannot be that rare or Florence could not have produced so much talent.

Bryan Townsend said...

This comment is so brilliant that instead of discussing here I am going to start a new post...

Rickard Dahl said...

I agree that there are alot of other factors involved in becoming good or great at music than talent. But what is musical talent in reality? Is it really a combination of genes which are good for music? And how do you measure talent (if it can be measured)? And if so, are there degrees of talent? Does a lack of musical talent (however it is defined) mean that you can't become great at music? Or is it in reality just a case bad practice methods and lack of motivation which prevents people from being referred to as talented (i.e. is it in fact non-genetic, talent being just a label thrown around to explain the "mystical" part of learning music)? And isn't for example J.S. Bach and Mozart perfect examples of raised geniuses rather than born? Sure they were very smart/had high IQ but their parent/s were musical and encouraged and taught them many of the things like composition, great playing from early age. Maybe their parents were simply great teachers and J.S. Bach & Mozart great students.

Bryan Townsend said...

I spent over twenty years in an effort to demonstrate that good teaching can be decisive in the development of young musicians--translation, I taught classical guitar in private lessons in both conservatory and university settings. There are thousands of music teachers working on the same practical problem every day with hundreds of thousands of students. Actually, that number is probably low as there are, I hear, millions of piano and violin students in China alone these days.

Now, as I have posted a lot of times here, I am unimpressed with the scientific research on these questions so I tend to rely on my own experience and that of other teachers I have spoken to.

Here is how an outstanding teacher turns out accomplished students: he gets a highly-gifted class of students to work with from the beginning. And then guides and inspires them. The truth is that the vast majority of people who take up a musical instruments are not going to become great players. I don't think anyone collects the numbers, but most students, when they discover how much work they have to do, will at some point simply drop out. Of the ones that are left, who can do the work, most of them will have little or only a modest 'feel' for the instrument. A tiny minority will become accomplished players and this tiny minority are the ones who will be accepted as students by the famous teachers at the famous schools.

I don't know how much genetics is involved, maybe the scientists can figure that out. But a really great musician appears when the natural ability is there, plus being born into a musical family, plus being born in a time and place that is supportive.

Christine Lacroix said...

It was interesting to read about your experience discovering music throughout your childhood, Bryan.

I guess that just because we can't define exactly what talent is, or quantify it's role, it doesn't make it any less important.Someone once said that we are attracted to the activities that we have an aptitude for because of the enjoyment we get using those aptitudes. If there's no aptitude the effort required overrides the pleasure factor so we drop out. I've often wondered about that. I suppose it could account to some degree for motivation.

Bryan Townsend said...

That makes perfect sense. And also seems to be a bit like Aristotle's view. The proper task of humans is to develop their capacities.