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More Evidence That Music Talent Is Largely Innate

• June 30, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: AAR Studio/Shutterstock)

New research on twins finds nature and nurture interact to produce accomplished musicians. A second study suggests chimps might be among their fans.

If a chimpanzee practiced the violin for 10,000 hours, could it become a great musician? The short answer, suggested by two new research papers is: No, but it’s not because chimps don’t appreciate music.

The issue, rather, is that the “10,000 hours of practice makes you proficient, regardless of your innate talent” meme, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, appears to be on very shaky ground.

The latest challenge to that theory, originally proposed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, is from psychologists Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University and Elliot Tucker-Drob of the University of Texas at Austin. Using data from the National Merit Twin Study, they examined the extent to which musical accomplishment is determined by (a) one’s genetic make-up and (b) persistent practicing.

Their sample consisted of 850 pairs of same-sex twins who were high-school juniors in 1962. Approximately 60 percent were identical twins, who share nearly 100 percent of their genes; the others were fraternal twins, who share approximately half of their genes.

“It is likely that genetically influenced penchants and/or aptitudes for music could lead children to dedicate themselves to music practice.”

“The parents of 394 pairs reported that both twins took music lessons,” the researchers write in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. “Of these, 254 individuals reported that they practiced frequently,” while 242 said they practiced only occasionally, and 291 admitted they did not practice at all.

Musical accomplishment was determined by whether an individual met one of seven criteria, including “received a rating of good or excellent” in a competition, “performed with a professional orchestra,” or “composed music which has been given at least one public performance.”

Not surprisingly, Hambrick and Tucker-Drob found a correlation between practice and musical accomplishment. But they also found that the amount of practice young musicians engaged in was influenced by their genetic make-up.

“It is likely that genetically influenced penchants and/or aptitudes for music could lead children to dedicate themselves to music practice,” the researchers write. In other words, early indications of potential, along with encouragement from parents and teachers, led to more time practicing.

Even after taking practice out of the equation, however, “over three-quarters of the genetic variance in music accomplishment remained,” they report. This means that the aforementioned “genetically influenced propensities” to practice “are not sufficient to explain all of the genetic influences on accomplishment.”

Rather, the researchers conclude, musical accomplishment is determined in large part by “a host of other genetically influenced factors, such as musical aptitude or basic abilities.”

Their study provides evidence for the common-sense notion that “genetic potentials for music accomplishment are most fully expressed and fostered by practice.” The genes, in other words, contain the seed, while the practice provides the nurturance that allows the talent to develop to its full potential.

Now, about those chimps. Previous research concluded that they not only lacked the discipline to become virtuosos, but that they don’t even appreciate music. Several studies concluded they preferred a quiet environment compared to one where music was playing.

But a team led Morgan Mingle and Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University wondered if previous researchers were simply using the wrong genre. Their study is published in the  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

Over a series of days, the researchers played “40 minutes of continuous West African akan, North Indian raga, or Japanese taiko instrumental music” in an enclosure housing 16 adult chimpanzees. The animals could hang out in an area where they could hear the music clearly, one where they could barely hear it at all, or two where the sound was muted.

The chimps “spent more time in areas close to the source of Indian and African music, suggesting a preference for both music types over silence,” the researchers write. “These preferences were stable throughout the experimental period, suggesting they were not simply caused by stimulus novelty.”

So what did pique the chimps’ interest? The researchers note that the Indian music has very few strong beats, and the African music almost entirely consists of strong beats. In either case, they write, “the listener does not hear an obvious pulse to the music.”

“In contrast,” they add, “the Japanese music, which was not preferred (by the animals), had regular strong beats every other beat, producing a clear, percussive pulse” not unlike Western music.

“Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping, and banging objects,” de Wall told the American Psychological Association. That being the case, it’s easy to understand why, in their minds, such music wouldn’t create a pleasant, relaxing environment.

So, everybody’s a critic—even chimpanzees. That’s something young musicians should keep in mind, even as they’re honing their innate skills through countless hours of practice.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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