What Do Great Musicians Have in Common? DNA

Bret Stetka, Scientific American, August 5, 2014


A 1993 study by Ericsson and colleagues helped popularize the idea that we can all practice our way to tuba greatness if we so choose. The authors found that by age 20 elite musicians had practiced for an average of 10,000 hours, concluding that differences in skill are not “due to innate talent.” Author Malcolm Gladwell lent this idea some weight in his 2008 book “Outliers.” Gladwell writes that greatness requires an enormous time investment and cites the “10,000-Hour Rule” as a major key to success in various pursuits from music (The Beatles) to software supremacy (Bill Gates).

However, new research led by Michigan State University psychology professor David Z. Hambrick suggests that, unfortunately for many of us, success isn’t exclusively a product of determination–that despite even the most hermitic practice routine, our genes might still leave greatness out of reach.

Hambrick and his colleague Elliot Tucker-Drob, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas, set out to investigate the genetic influences on musical accomplishment using data from a study of 850 same-sex twin pairs from the 1960s. Participants were originally queried on their musical successes and how often they practiced, both of which Hambrick found to have a genetic component. One quarter of the genetic influence on musical accomplishment appears related to the act of practicing itself. Certain genes and genotypes presumably confer qualities that drive some kids to hole up in their basement and, at the expense of their family’s sanity, perfect that drum fill–traits like musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation, that in turn could draw reinforcement from parents and teachers, leading to even more desire to practice. Hambrick’s findings don’t reveal what accounts for the remaining majority of genetic influence on musical accomplishment, though he assumes it’s innate differences in faculties that would logically contribute to musical ability, such as sound processing and motor coordination.

But it gets more complicated. The new findings suggest that it’s the way our genes and environment interact that is most crucial to musical accomplishment. Not only do genetically-influenced qualities contribute to whether people are likely to practice, Hambrick’s data show that the genetic influence on musical success was far larger in those who practiced more. It was previously thought that people might start out with a genetic leg up for a particular activity, but that skill derived through practice could eventually surpass any genetic predilections. “Our results suggest that it’s the other way around,” explains Hambrick, “that genes become more, not less important in differentiating people as they practice . . . genetic potentials for skilled performance are most fully expressed and fostered by practice.”
In other words, people have various genetically determined basic abilities, or talents, that render them better or worse at certain skills, but that can be nurtured through environmental influences. {snip}

A similar study forthcoming in Psychological Science by Miriam A. Mosing of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute leans even heavier on the role of genes in musicality. Mosing and colleagues looked at the association between music practice and specific musical abilities like rhythm, melody and pitch discrimination in over 10,000 identical Swedish twins. They reported that the propensity to practice was between 40% and 70% heritable and that there was no difference in musical ability between twins with varying amounts of cumulative practice. “Music practice,” they conclude, “may not causally influence musical ability and . . . genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice.”

Though both new studies focused on musicality, the findings can in theory be extrapolated to other skilled and creative activities. Similar data exist suggesting a genetic component to chess mastery, and Hambrick is currently analyzing the same twin data set to assess the genetics of scientific accomplishment. Not to get overly reductionist, but it could be assumed that nearly all of our talents and cognitive characteristics are least partly influenced by our respective strings of nucleotides. {snip}



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  • Franklin_Ryckaert

    Success in whatever endeavor depends on :

    1) Talent.
    2) Effort.
    3) Circumstances.

    Marxists will only acknowledge nr.3, and perhaps reluctantly nr. 2. I say reluctantly because then they will have to admit that failure of some individuals or groups is to be ascribed to laziness and not to oppression, which goes against the grain of their simplistic and rancorous ideology. But that success mostly depends on talent, which is mostly genetic in origin and thus dependent on the “accident of birth” is totally unacceptable to our Marxist friends. That would mean that there exists a natural aristocracy of talent that no Marxist revolution ever can overturn, which would render the whole Marxist Utopian project meaningless. Every human activity no matter how simple requires talent. Some people lack even the talent to tie shoelaces, other people have the talent to compose symphonies. All individuals and groups are unequal in talent. No amount of “training” can change that, no “social revolution” can ever make all men equal. Economical success too is dependent on talent. There will always be rich and poor people. Marxism is a revolt against nature, a revolt that will never succeed but only create suffering while trying to reach the impossible.

    • Usually Much Calmer

      Well put. I don’t know if it is Marxist per se, but I have definitely noted that the only factor ‘progressives’ recognize these days is #3. Many of my friends among this group, so I try to talk to them. They will, when you lay out the factors, insist that they are not dogmatic about #3, but then in every issue based or situation based conversation, #3 must be addressed AT ALL COSTS, as though it were the only factor. They do not realize their error.

      Mockery has been successful. Regarding ACA, for example, simply saying something absurd such as “Rich people must eventually die but the poor should be able to live forever.” brings it home (fleetingly, alas).

    • Stephen Wordsworth

      You should also remember that 2) Effort, is also a largely genetic trait, unless you apply the whip.

      • Franklin_Ryckaert

        Actually 3) “circumstances” too, if they are social in nature, are ultimately genetic in origin, albeit of former generations. Whites create different “circumstances” than Blacks. That is what leftists call “white privilege”. In reality it is “genetic privilege”.

  • antiquesunlight

    The genetic inclination to practice and study is priceless. I envy people who possess that. I always picked up on things fast, but the intense practice and study necessary for mastery have always been an unnatural effort for me.

    • Oldcorporal

      Me, too. I played E-flat alto sax in grade school and high school bands, and became pretty good at it. But I never became REALLY good, because I wasn’t willing to practice enough. My skill is at writing — and I think the basic ability came naturally. Although turning out probably 10,000 newspaper pieces in 40 years of journalism probably had something to do with it, too.

    • Veni Vidi Vici

      Hmmm, maybe ADHD, because it’s difficult to practice when your easily distracted. This was one reason I had an easier time with language arts which usually consisted of more rote memorization contrasted with Mathematics which consisted of complex step by step formulas which require laser focus…

  • JohnEngelman

    People have a tendency to work at what they know they are good at.

    • APaige

      You are correct, but I also believe enjoyment has to be a factor.

      • Anglokraut

        You’re both correct. When I graduated from high school, I was accepted to a university to study clarinet. I was a very good player, but I couldn’t handle the other parts of music study (I can’t sing very well, I don’t play the piano, and music theory was soul-sucking torture). Eventually I failed theory too many times, and was booted from the music program.
        It took about three years for me to even look at my clarinet without getting depressed about failing at the one thing I was both good at AND enjoyed doing; once I did finally get over not being the best, I could finally play again and just enjoy the music. Now I don’t mind not being the best there is, but I do mind not playing to the best of my abilities–I suppose that is part of the legacy of being a performance major.

  • JohnEngelman

    I begrudgingly acknowledged the importance of genes on a weight training club I joined in high school. Although I had been working out with weights for several years there were boys who got stronger than I was after a few months.

    • Tim_in_Indiana

      Yes, and no matter how much I worked out, I was never able to transform myself from the skinny nerd I already was.

      • robinbishop34

        Genetics do play a part but you were probably not working out properly… most people do not. This is why you will see the same people at the gym for years who do not get any bigger.

        The only way to properly put on muscle mass is through a process called progressive overload, which is a specific method of weightlifting in combination with calorie intake slightly in excess of maintenance levels.

  • dd121

    Do you mean to tell us that having brains might actually influence how well people do at tasks requiring intelligence?

  • Oldcorporal

    Interesting — and predictable — that in the very first paragraph, instead of citing, oh, say, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a musician who was a “natural” and almost “too good,” the author discussed Thelonius Monk — a black. And when he says the Beatles were “not necessarily technically proficient,” he’s also ignoring a fact: Paul McCartney may well be the best bass player of modern times, and has always had an uncanny ability to turn out songs, in quantity, whenever he wants to. And he plays a host of other instruments besides the bass. And is a great rock singer. Does all this mean simply that he “practiced a lot” while growing up?

    • Tarczan

      There has to be a connection between all the pop English musicians and heredity.

      • APaige

        And time. The post war English ‘art school’ set foundations for the 1960s English bands. The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin (the best), etc. How many great English bands formed after 1970? Queen? The Police?

        • IstvanIN

          ELO was good.

    • antiquesunlight

      McCartney has also written some pretty good classical style music. He’s a talented guy, no doubt.

      I was surprised to read that Monk won competitions as a child. His playing, at least what I’ve heard of it, was pretty clunky.

    • Franklin_Ryckaert

      Of course giving Mozart as an example would be “too white”. The author wants to remain PC in a discussion that is already risky enough, so he gives a black man as an example. That would reassure the Marxists at least emotionally.

      But when he mentions Francis Galton who held to the view that certain talents run in families – a view his own article leads to – he calls other thinkers who believe that mastery in any skill can be achieved through practice – a view which his own article denies – “perhaps more ethically palatable than Galton”! You cannot be scientific and PC at the same time without contradicting yourself.

      And when he says “genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice” he doesn’t broaden that to racial groups, who are after all genetically determined. That would for example explain why negroes perform bad in education both in exams and in the inclination to learn in the first place.

      There comes a moment in the progress of science that Marxism has to be discarded, but this man has not yet arrived at that point.

  • Hal K

    This makes sense to me. I keep playing and learning new pieces, but I can tell that I will never be able to get beyond a certain proficiency level.

  • ncpride

    While my daughter loves to play and was with the concert band in school for seven years, she does not have the same ability as her best friend. That young woman has won every competition she has ever entered, and was invited to tour Europe last summer, which she did. If you love classical music, you’ll no doubt hear her name soon enough.

  • Even something as basic as mastering college level math and economics requires good genes well as an inclination to study, which also depends on genes. The University of Texas System, which employs this researcher, is the WORST at ignoring this basic fact, pushing huge numbers of genetically unqualified Mexicans through the system while pressuring profs to lower standards and engage in grade inflation.

    Imagine a high school band where every kid MUST be in the band in the name of egalitarianism. What would that band sound like? Horrible? But that’s what the egalitarians are doing to universities now. The results will be equally horrible.

    • Franklin_Ryckaert

      Marxists are of course mainly interested in economical performance and perhaps they might eventually concede that musical performance is dependent on genetically determined talent. But they will never ever concede that economical performance is equally dependent on genetically determined talent. That would destroy their dream that once in the future a Utopia of equality will be established on earth. They look with horror at an IQ map of the world in which the darker races have lower IQs and are poorer and the lighter races have higher IQs and are richer. I do not know for how long we will have to endure the tyranny of Marxism, but I’m afraid it will take a political rather than a scientific revolution.

    • KevinPhillipsBong

      very good analogy

  • IstvanIN

    We are born with so much of our basic personality, talents and dispositions intact, it can be scary. Makes one believe in predestination more and more.

    • Tim_in_Indiana

      Yes, it’s the only kind of predestination or “fate” I believe in.

  • MBlanc46

    How do you to Carnegie Hall? Heredity, heredity, heredity.

  • rightrightright

    This is nothing new. Remember the saying “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”.

    • KevinPhillipsBong

      Yes but that saying tells us nothing about how genetics relates to a desire to perspire (or practice, in this case). That 90% means different things to different people.