Tuesday, January 18, 2011


As a music therapist, I often hear the word "talent" in a phrase such as "I don't have any musical talent". That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my position is that it needn't be. For one thing, my view is that there is no unitary "musical talent". Some people have a great feel for rhythm, others for intonation, others for harmony and feeling chord changes, others for performing for audiences, and on and on. Truly gifted people have an abundance of a lot of those talents, but regular folks often have some measure of some of them as well.

Also, a crucial component of success at music making is the motivation to work at it enough to fully engage in the process and to experience the positive benefits it can bring, creating a virtuous circle of progress. I have from time to time encountered people with wonderful technique, but who have given up music because it no longer interests them because they feel no reward in pursuing music. They have various musical talents, but not the talent of connecting music making to their personal enjoyment and sense of fulfillment.

This article from the BBC seems to lend some support to this view. It's a discussion of how the new research into genetics indicates nurture has a lot to do with nature, i.e. just because you have a particular genes doesn't automatically mean you have that trait.

. . . genes interact with their surroundings, getting turned on and off all the time. In effect, the same genes have different effects depending on who they are talking to. . . 

. . .[A trait] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment." This means that everything about us - our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities - are actually determined by the lives we lead. The very notion of "innate" no longer holds together. . . 

. . ."Like a jukebox, the individual has the potential to play a number of different developmental tunes. The particular developmental tune it does play is selected by [the environment] in which the individual is growing up.". . . 

. . ."High academic achievers are not necessarily born 'smarter' than others," they write in their book Talented Teenagers, "but work harder and develop more self-discipline.". . . 

. . .Most profoundly, Carol Dweck from Stanford University in the US, has demonstrated that students who understand intelligence is malleable rather than fixed are much more intellectually ambitious and successful. . . 

. . . Bit by bit, they're gathering a better and better understanding of how different attitudes, teaching styles and precise types of practice and exercise push people along very different pathways. . . .

All of this has great bearing on the discussion of "natural" in this post and those posts on other blogs that are linked. It also bears on the feelings discussed in this post on educators' often brusque elimination from their programs of people wishing to make music. 

I've seen in other discussions of the new genetics, though, that environment (nurture) can only affect genetic predisposition (nature) at the margins. It will take a while for all this to get sorted out, but in the meantime I hope to give regular folks some good tools for developing their music making abilities so as to enjoy all the benefits that can flow from successfully making music.


  1. Of course, talent might be a factor, but not the kind of talent most people think about in this sort of context. The talent might be for concentration, single-mindedness and perseverance. And the activity to which that talent gets applied is largely irrelevant.

    But once somebody finds an activity that they are interested in and to which they initially devote their talent, they quickly get so good at it that they assume that there talent is for the activity, not for the ability to concentrate on doing something well.

  2. Jonathan - "The talent might be for concentration, single-mindedness and perseverance." - That's very well put. Part of the problem is that I think most people would recognize what you're saying in connection with something they are good at, but music making, in this era of ubiquitous recorded music and so little live music, has taken on an aura of something outside everyday activity - that without "talent" they feel there's no chance of succeeding.

  3. Part of the problem with music making, when it is done well, is that it looks easy for the performer.

    And most audiences have no idea how much effort goes into making it look effortless!

    And this is misconception is even more marked when you are listening to recordings.

    First, the sound appears from the speaker as if by magic - you can't even see any effort being put into it.

    Second, the fact that a recording sounds exactly the same every time you hear it gives a misleading impression of the extent to which the music has been mastered by the performer.

    And third, for professionally-produced recordings, all the clams have been edited out, so their is an even greater and more misleading impression of effortless mastery and perfection.

  4. Jonathan - That "effortless" point is a great one I hadn't thought of. I tend to think of recordings being the problem and live music more the answer, but you're absolutely right that in all our work to appear effortless in performance we're feeding that notion that music makers are "other". Thanks very much for the comment.

  5. Of course, the same applies to other forms of performance. For instance, stand-up comics look as if they are just wandering on to the stage and chatting with the audience, and it just so happens that what they say is roaringly funny.

    Most people don't even think about the effort that goes into writing the jokes, having pre-prepared ad-libs for likely reactions from the audience, and working out the timing (and sometimes props) for an effective delivery.

    They make it look so easy that we simultaneously think "that's easy, I could do that" and "I wish I could be that funny". These mutually contradictory thoughts arise from the fact that we don't think about the preparation and effort that goes into getting the performance ready.

  6. I agree. The underlying link, for me, is the over professionalization of entertainment. Back before TV and recorded music, folks had to entertain themselves more often than not. Professional live performances were just in the big cities and by touring groups. Otherwise it was just various communal get togethers with all levels of performance skills on view. That allowed for people to see the graduated levels, not just the "perfection" of modern recordings and performances. I think it also allowed them to see just how much fun and beneficial even less than perfect music can be, and how effective "easier" music can be if played well.

    Pliable's been posting about the "transmission" between performer and audience. My feeling is that a strong connection between performer and audience with less technically challenging music is of more benefit than a technically "perfect" rendition of a war horse that doesn't connect as well with the audience. (And, of course, who the audience is and how ready they are to be able to appreciate the performance is part of it as well.)

    Again, Jonathan, thanks so much for these thought provoking comments that help me better think through issues like this.