Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Les Paul, Skills, and Abilities

Music is a skill, not an ability.

Les PaulLes Paul died on August 13, 2009, at the age of 94. He is known both for his guitar-playing skill and also for his inventions. He is one of the first people to create a solid-body electric guitar. He invented multitrack recording, which changed the way music is produced. In his obituary in the New York times, though, I was struck by one sentence. "His childhood music teacher wrote to his mother, "Your boy, Lester, will never learn music."

This is a prime example of how music is a skill not an ability.

Carol Dweck and her colleagues make a distinction between abilities-things you can or cannot do-and skills-things you learn to do. We often think of music as an ability. People who do not play instruments look at people who play beautiful music and assume they have some special ability to sound good playing music. That gulf between those with and without musical ability seems unbridgeable, and so they do not even try to take up an instrument.

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Les Paul GuitarThe evidence, though, suggests that music is a skill, not an ability. You can learn to play music, and to play it well. Certainly, there are some basic abilities that affect how well you will play an instrument when you first pick it up and how easily you will learn at first. People will differ in their basic motor coordination and timing. But again, Les Paul is an inspiring case. As an adult, he was in a car wreck and his right elbow was shattered. He had it set at an angle so that he could continue to play the guitar. But certainly having an arm that will not move much ought to be a significant impairment to playing. Yet he played on. In addition, as he grew older, he had terrible arthritis, and had to re-learn to play the guitar with reduced mobility, but still managed to play beautiful and technically difficult lines.

The research on music expertise says that it is the amount of time that musicians spend practicing that determines how good they will be. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues have studied expertise extensively in music and other domains. One study even looked at musicians in a conservatory. The ratings of students by faculty were almost perfectly related to the amount of time that those students spent practicing rather than some other measure of ability.

So, as we honor Les Paul for his contributions to popular music, let's also honor him for being an example of what each of us is capable of doing if we are willing to put in the time and effort to do it well.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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