The question of innate talent

Some personal experience

I have two sons. One of them was a colicky baby. Night after night my partner would carry him around the room while I tried to get a little sleep. One night, for his own amusement, my partner chose a particular CD to play. Magic! As the haunting notes of the hymns of the 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen rang through the room, the baby stopped crying. And stayed stopped. As long as the music played. Experimentation revealed that our son particularly liked very early music (plainchant from the 15th century Josquin des Pres was another favorite).

We felt sorry for all those parents with crying babies who hadn't discovered this magic cure-all.

And then we had another son.

This one didn't like music. No magic this time. And we realized, it wasn't that 12th century music had magical properties to calm a crying baby. No, it was this particular baby that responded to this sort of music.

The years went on. Nothing we saw contradicted that first impression - one son was "musical", and one was not. It seemed pretty clear to us. One son took after me, and one took after my partner.

My partner plays the piano, and the pipe organ, and the harpsichord. He is "into" Bach. He has played in churches and concerts. He has a shelf full of books on music and cupboards full of music scores, CDs by the score.

Me? I like to sing, to myself. I learned the violin for a while in my youth. I like to listen to CDs of jazz, and popular show tunes. I like music, but I'm not sophisticated about it. It's background to me. My partner actually listens to it.

So which child took after which parent?

Well, we believe the "musical" one took after me, and the "non-musical" one took after my partner. Because - he got there by training. By practicing and learning and persevering and taking an interest. He has no sense of rhythm, no particularly keen sense of pitch. But he's the one who can produce music. Me, I have an ear for music. Remembering a rhythm is effortless for me; I respond, instinctively, to music. But I could never bother to practice, and my response to music has stayed at the same level. Instinctive.

Our "musical" son has been involved in learning music the Suzuki way since he was four. We never particularly encouraged our other son to do likewise, simply told him he could if he wanted to. His brother persuaded him he did want to. So, fine, we said.

You can guess, I'm sure, how things have been. It's been obvious, watching and listening to our older son, that he has a talent for music, that it comes easily to him. Equally obvious that it hasn't come that easily to our younger son. But it's the younger son who has made much faster progress in the past year, because he practices more, because he's keen to learn. And it's been amazing to watch his ear for music develop.

Do you need an inborn talent to do well?

Suzuki flew in the face of "common-sense" when he decided very young children with no demonstrable genius could be taught to play the violin. I can only imagine the stunned amazement with which the first Suzuki concerts were greeted. They still amaze today.

Suzuki himself, while he supported the training of all children, believed that, of course, some would be "naturally" gifted, and that outstanding performance would require a gift, as well as training. However, as his experience with children and his method increased, he grew to believe that “every child can be highly educated if he is given the proper training” and blamed early training failures on incorrect methods.

Howard Gardner (inventor of the Multiple Intelligences theory) reviewed the exceptional music performance attained by children trained in the Suzuki method, and noted many of these children, who displayed no previous signs of musical talent, attained levels comparable to music prodigies of earlier times. Therefore, he concluded, the important aspect of talent must be the potential for achievement and the capacity to rapidly learn material relevant to one of the intelligences. That is, since we didn't see the talent before we started training, and since the fact that they do perform so well demonstrates that they must have talent, then the talent must have existed in potential.

This is, of course, a wholly circular argument.

And one that is widely believed. According to an informal British survey, more than ¾ of music educators believe children can’t do well unless they have special innate gifts10. It is believed that saying that someone has a “gift” for something explains why they have excelled at something - although it is an entirely circular argument: Why do they do well? Because they have a gift. How do you know they have a gift? Because they do well.

It is also widely believed that such innate talents can be detected in early childhood.

The problem with this view is that many children are denied the opportunities and support to achieve excellence, because it has been decreed that they don’t “have” an appropriate talent.

The circular argument becomes truly a vicious circle. You don't do this easily first time, therefore you don't have any talent, therefore it's not worth pushing you to do well, therefore you won't do well - which proves what we told you in the first place, you have no talent!

So how much justification is there for believing excellence requires a "natural" talent?

Is there such a thing as inborn talent?

A questionnaire study found that early interest and delight in musical sounds fails to predict later musical competence25.

We have all heard stories of child prodigies who supposedly could do amazing things from a very young age. In no case however, is this very early explosion of skills (in the first three years) observed directly by an impartial observer – the accounts all being (naturally enough you might think), retrospective and anecdotal. Noone denies that very young children, from 3 years old, have been observed to have remarkable skills for their age, but although the parents typically say the child learned these skills entirely unaided, this is not supported by the evidence. For example, in a typical case, the parents claimed (and no doubt sincerely believed) that their child learned to read entirely unaided and that they only discovered this on seeing her reading Heidi. However they had kept detailed records of her accomplishments. As Fowler19 pointed out, it is difficult to believe that parents who keep such accounts have not been actively involved in the child’s early learning.

Music is an area where infant prodigies abound – many famous composers are reported to have displayed unusual musical ability at a very young age. Again, however, such accounts are reported many years later (after the composer has become famous). Early biographies of prominent composers reveal they all received intensive and regular supervised practice sessions29. “The emergence of unusual skills typically followed rather than preceded a period during which unusual opportunities were provided, often combined with a strong expectation that the child would do well."

Art is another area where infant "geniuses" are occasionally cited. However, although some 2 and 3 year olds have produced drawings considerably more realistic than is the norm45, among major artists, few are known to have produced drawings that display exceptional promise before age 8 or so44.

There is no doubt that some individuals acquire some skills more easily than others, but this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with 'talent'. Motivational and personality factors, as well as previous learning experiences, can all affect such facility.

Biological factors that might underlie "talent"

There are various underlying factors that are at least partly genetic and no doubt influence ability – for example response speed2 and working memory capacity8,9 - but there is no clear neural correlate for any specific exceptional skill.

The closest such correlate is that of "perfect" pitch. There does appear to be a structural difference in the brain of those who have absolute pitch, and certainly some young children have been shown to have perfect pitch. However, even if this difference in the brain is innate and not, as it could well be, the result of differences in learning or experience, having perfect pitch is no guarantee that you will excel at music. Moreover, it appears that it can be learned. It’s relatively common in musicians given extensive musical training before five or six12, and even appears to be learnable by adults, although with considerably more difficulty3,42.

It is always difficult to demonstrate that an observed neurological or physical difference is innate rather than the product of training or experience. For example, many people have pointed to particular physical features as being the reason for particular sports people to excel at their particular sport. However, while individual differences in the composition of certain muscles are reliable predictors of differences in athletic performance, the differences in the proportion of the slow-twitch muscle fibres that are essential for success in long-distance running, for example, are largely the result of extended practice, rather than the cause of differential ability11. Differences between athletes and others in the proportions of particular kinds of muscle fibres are specific to those muscles that are most fully exercised in the athletes’ training22.

There is little evidence, too, for the idea that exceptional athletes are born with superior motor and perceptual abilities. Tests for basic motor and perceptual abilities fail to predict performance15. Exceptional sportspeople do not reliably score higher than lesser mortals on such basic tests.

Savants

So-called idiot-savants are widely cited in support of the idea of innate talent. However, studies of cases have found the opportunities, support and encouragement for learning the skill have preceded performance by years or even decades12,23,43. Moreover, their skills are learnable by others.

The only ability that can’t be reproduced after brief training is the reputed ability to reproduce a piece of music after a single hearing. However, in a study of one such savant5 it was shown that such reproduction depended on the familiarity of the sequences of notes. Tonally unconventional pieces were remembered poorly. Thus, musical savants, like normal experts, need access to stored patterns and retrieval structures to enable them to retain long, unfamiliar musical patterns.

Predicting adult performance

Several interview and biographical studies of exceptional people have been carried out (e.g., pianists40,41; musicians31; tennis players35; artists37; swimmers26; mathematicians20). In no case could you have predicted their eventual success from their early childhood behavior; few showed signs of exceptional promise prior to receiving parental encouragement.

Composers21, chess players36, mathematicians20, sportspeople26,32 have all been shown to require many years of sustained practice and training to reach high levels of expertise.

Twin studies

Twin studies support the view that family experience is more important than genes for the development of specific abilities (e.g., The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart found self-ratings of musical talent correlated .44 among identical twins reared apart, compared to .69 for identical twins reared together30; correlations on a number of measures of musical ability were not much lower for fraternal twins (.34 to .83) than for identical twins (.44 to .9)7.

Moreover, the importance of inherited factors reduces as training and practice increases1,28,15.

Practice and performance level

The performance level of student violinists in their 20s is strongly correlated with the number of hours that they practiced13,14. Similarly with pianists27. No significant differences have been found between highly successful young musicians and other children in the amount of practice time they required to make a given amount of progress between successive grades in the British musical board exams; achieving the highest level (grade 8) required an average of some 3300 hours of practice regardless of the ability group to which the student had been assigned39. Another study found that by age 20, the top-level violinists had practiced an average of more than 10000 hrs, some 2500 hrs more than the next most accomplished group15.

Practice accounts for far more than most of us might realize. Several studies have demonstrated the high levels of performance (often higher than experts had regarded as possible) that can be attained by perfectly ordinary adults, given enough practice4,6,12.

It has been argued that talent encourages children to practice more, but this is contradicted by the finding that, even among highly successful young musicians, most admit they would never have regularly practiced at the required level without strong parental encouragement38,24.

The top of the cream?

It may well be, of course, that there is a quality to the exceptionally talented person’s performance that is missing from others, however hard they have practiced.

It is also possible that, although practice, training, and other influences may account for performance differences in most people, there is a small number of people to whom this doesn’t apply.

However, there is at this time no evidence that this is true.

What is clear is that “no case has been encountered of anyone reaching the highest levels of achievement in chess-playing, mathematics, music, or sports without devoting thousands of hours to serious training” (Howe et al 1999).

The pattern of learning seems to be the same for everyone, arguing against some qualitative difference between "geniuses" and ordinary folk. Studies of prodigies in chess and music show that the skills are acquired in the same manner by everyone, but that prodigies reach higher levels faster and younger16,17. Moreover, rather than acquiring their skills in a vacuum, it appears that “the more powerful and specific the gift, the more need for active, sustained and specialized intervention” (Feldman, 1986, p123).

The producing of an outstanding talent indeed, seems to require a great deal of parental support and early intervention.

It is particularly instructive to observe the case of the Polgar daughters. With no precocious love for the chess board observable in their three daughters, Laslo & Klara Polgar, simply as an educational experiment, decided to raise their daughters to be chess experts. All did extraordinarily well, and one became the youngest international chess grand master ever18.

It has been noted that the performance of experts of yesteryear is now attainable by many. When Tchaikovsky asked two of the greatest violinists of the day to play his violin concerto, it is said, they refused, deeming it unplayable33 - now it is standard repertoire for top violinists. Paganini, it is claimed, would cut a sorry figure on a concert stage today34. Such is the standard we have come to expect from our top performers.

And we are all familiar with the way sports records keep being broken – the winning time for the 1st Olympic marathon is now the qualifying time for the Boston marathon.

Are we suddenly breeding more talent?

No. But training has improved immeasurably.

Practicing effectively

It is not, then, simply practice that is important. It is the right practice. Ericsson & Charness distinguish between deliberate practice – which involves specifically tailored instruction and training, with feedback, and supervision - and the sort of playful repetition more characteristic of people who enjoy an activity and do it a lot. Most people reach an acceptable level of performance, and then are satisfied. The "talented" ... keep on.

References: 
  1. Ericsson, K.A. & Charness, N. Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. In S.J. Ceci & Wendy M. Williams (eds) The nature-nurture debate: The essential readings. Essential Readings in Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp200-255.
  2. Howe, M.J.A., Davidson, J.W. & Sloboda, J.A. 1999. Innate talents: Reality of myth? In S.J. Ceci & Wendy M. Williams (eds) The nature-nurture debate: The essential readings. Essential Readings in Developmental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp168-175.

Footnoted references

  1. Ackerman, P.L. 1988. Determinants of individual differences during skill acquisition: cognitive abilities and information processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 117, 299-318.
  2. Bouchard, T.J., Lykken, D.T., McGue, M., Segal, N.L. & Tellegen, A. 1990. Sources of human psychological differences: the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Science, 250, 223-8.
  3. Brady, P.T. 1970. The genesis of absolute pitch. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 48, 883-7.
  4. Ceci, S.J., Baker, J.G. & Bronfenbrenner, U. 1988. Prospective remembering, temporal calibration, and context. In M. Gruneberg, P. Morris, & R. Sykes (eds). Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues. Wiley.
  5. Charness N Clifton J & MacDonald L. 1988. Case study of a musical mono-savant. IN LK Obler & DA Fein (eds) The exceptional brain: Neuropsychology of talent and special abilities (pp277-93). NY: Guilford Press.
  6. Chase, W.G. & Ericsson, K.A. 1981. Skilled memory. In J.R. Anderson (ed). Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Erlbaum.
  7. Coon, H. & Carey, G. 1989. Genetic and environmental determinants of musical ability in twins. Behavior Genetics, 19, 183-93.
  8. Dark, V.J. & Benbow, C.P. 1990. Enhanced problem translation and short-term memory: components of mathematical talent. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 420-9.
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  22. Howald, H. 1982. Training-induced morphological and functional changes in skeletal muscle. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 3, 1-12.
  23. Howe, M.J.A. 1990. The origins of exceptional abilities. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  24. Howe, M.J.A. & Sloboda, J.A. 1991. Young musicians' accounts of significant influences in their early lives: 2. Teachers, practising and performing. British Journal of Music Education, 8, 53-63.
  25. Howe, M.J.A., Davidson, J.W., Moore, D.G. & Sloboda, J.A. 1995. Are there early childhood signs of musical ability? Psychology of Music, 23, 162-76.
  26. Kalinowski, A.G. 1985. The development of Olympic swimmers. In B.S. Bloom (ed). Developing talent in young people. Ballantine.
  27. Krampe, R.Th. 1994. Maintaining excellence: cognitive-motor performance in pianists differing in age and skill level. Max-Planck-Institut fur Bildungsforschung.
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  30. Lykken, D. 1998. The genetics of genius. In A. Steptoe (ed). Genius and the mind. Oxford University Press.
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Comments

Beyond playing sheet music, there seems to exist a talent wall beyond which one needs a good memory (especially if playing melody or chords) and a good grasp of music theory which I find seems to be linked to mathematical abilities.