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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