Is music talent set or grown?

Our traditional ideas about musical talent are being challenged by neuromusical research. Through studying musicians Neuroscientists and psychologists are working with a theory that we are born with predispositions for many things. Some people are born with a predisposition for learning and understanding music.

This is often evident in their very high levels of auditory processing. But within the theory there is also an understanding that those predispositions, in many cases, will one day be realised without the opportunity in life to build upon those predispositions. The simple way to understand the difference is that we no longer think of talent as nature OR nurture, we now think of it as nature AND nurture.

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Working with this theory we have to also take into account the influences of genetics and personality, both of which fall into the category of a predisposition we are born with. I often think about it with sport. I might desperately want to become a professional basketball player, but with a genetic predisposition to grow no taller than about 160cm (5 foot 7 inches) I might struggle with that dream. Similarly in music, if I was born with a low predisposition for the persistence that is required for music practise, I would probably be unable to reach the level required to perform as a professional musician.

So, how much of the idea of talent is set and how much can be grown? I think this would be a great topic for debate around a table full of musicians and music educators. This is because we sometimes view the concept of talent as something we have no control over. If talent can be grown then maybe we do have an influence over it. But how much influence and in what way?

I am working with the idea that maybe talent is a combination of genetics and personality, but those predispositions make music learning look and feel easier, they may not always be predetermined and impervious to change or the influence of nurture. Even more fascinating to me is those students who exhibit higher than average talent/ease with the music learning process to begin with, but then struggle later on because they haven’t developed the skills to practise and learn effectively.

What do you think, is musical talent set or grown?



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