Can Science Provide Insight into the Arts?

Dispelling the myth of talent could lead to real musical advancement.

Posted Aug 15, 2017

I’ve recently been working on a couple projects that have reminded me just how strongly rooted the myth of talent is among musicians, especially those within the academic musical world.This particular myth is is so persistent that I have taken to calling it the diehard myth of talent.

Several years ago it survived—essentially unscathed, as far as I can tell—a spate of popular books which challenged the importance of innate talent. The books include Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008), Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (2009), and Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (2010). All of these books drew from the research literature of psychology and related fields to make the case for nurture over nature in explaining exceptional performance in multiple domains; and all of these books, like the research they drew from, specifically address musical performance. Matthew Syed’s Bounce was alternatively subtitled Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success. I mention this in particular because I suspect that the invoking of “science” did little to open the minds of the musicians who may need to hear it the most.

Science has long been pitted as an adversary of the arts. People who will not be bothered to explain how they carry out an advanced skill will often demur by saying that what they do is “more of an art than a science.” I’ve found that many musicians, when asked about performance expertise are more accepting of supernatural or mystical accounts of how musicianship comes to be. Even though they are among the most dedicated and hardest-working craftspeople around, they tend to eschew practice as the primary determinant of musical expertise; instead, they favor the almost folkloric explanation of talent. Eminent music psychologist John Sloboda may have said it best:

the folk psychology of the musical world can often seem to be designed to keep the answers shrouded in mystery. The invocation of concepts of ‘talent’ and ‘inspiration’ can often be used to put an end to further attempts to analyse and understand the underlying processes. Such concepts are often no more than redescriptions of the very phenomena that require explanation. They have no explanatory power, but their power in the lives and motivations of individuals can be disproportionate. The number of people who disengage from musical activity based on the belief that they ‘lack musical talent’ constitutes a continuing cultural and educational tragedy. (Sloboda, 2000, p. 398)

Sloboda’s statement nearly 20 years ago, seems no less apt today. Whether it’s explaining talent as natural giftedness or defining creativity as that elusive spark of inspiration, the pseudo-explanations of artistic processes seem acceptable to many musicians who may fancy themselves as protecting the marvel of music from the mundanity of science.

Above I referenced four books published between 2008 and 2010, but writers within the human sciences continue to explicate the processes of skill acquisition, including those within the fine and performing arts. A great contributor of this position is Scott Barry Kaufman, who has authored the books Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (2013) and Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (2015), edited the volume The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice and founded the Creativity Post website. It was a social media post of Kaufman that directed me to an excellent online article by psychologist Angela Duckworth titled Let’s All Stop Babbling About ‘Talent’. In that piece, she offers:

Confusing talent and skill isn’t just sloppy thinking; it’s dangerous. It propagates the myth that talent is always the best predictor of future success. This error can lead to counting ourselves out of the game too early because, after all, we can think of plenty of people who have more talent than we do.

These words reflect Sloboda’s views that that I shared above. Not only is the talent myth exceedingly persistent and useless in explaining anything, it is also harmful: people burdened with the belief in their own lack of talent might otherwise enjoy a more enriching life through greater musical participation.

I must confess that this is where I sometimes struggle to keep my cynicism (about musical academe) in check. Part of me suspects that some career musicians do not want the general public to enjoy more musical participation themselves. I wonder, might career musician sense a loss of status if others are not amazed at their giftedness and worry about losing patrons of the performing arts?

In my experience, those who propagate and defend the talent myth do not do so by refuting the findings of scientific research. Rather they do so by altogether rejecting science as a means for gaining any insight about the arts. For example I once heard from an accomplished composer say, “People who attempt to explain creativity seem to be the least creative themselves.” I am not moved to refute that statement in particular—though I’d imagine Malcolm Gladwell and Scott Barry Kaufman would have something to say about it, but I do occasionally take up the cause of defending the value of human sciences research in explaining processes in the arts, such as creativity and performance skill acquisition.

Research study in social and behavioral science does not seek to advance “one size fits all” explanations for complex human phenomena. Rather, the work involves looking for trends and associations and effects that hold true much of the time. Even if a theory cannot explain 40% of all cases, it’s still quite valuable to the other 60%. Researchers worth their salt are careful not to overgeneralize or oversimplify their findings. They are, of course, free to propose theories and offer possible interpretations of their data.

Research results are best seen as one source of evidence to support a theory. And not all evidence is convincing to everyone who hears it. Perhaps one problem comes in the way that the evidence is presented. Usually when we hear about research results, it is not from the researchers themselves, but through the media. These folks may not always handle the information accurately. They may paraphrase the research to make it more accessible to the general public which isn’t interested in wading through academic jargon. Other times, writers and broadcasters turn to research simply to bolster their own position on an issue, using the authoritative phrase “Research shows….” As a result, research is sometimes mishandled and its findings applied too broadly. One of the worst music examples of this came in the 1990s with the so-called “Mozart effect.” The original study found that college undergrads (not music majors) did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to spending the same amount of time sitting in silence or listening to a relaxation tape. Yet the results in this very specific context somehow morphed into a simplistic movement, “music makes you smarter,” which was embraced by far too many in the field of music education.

Despite occasional abuses and oversimplifications by writers in the media, scientific research still offers our best chance of advancing our understanding of the complexities of human behavior, including musical behavior specifically. Certainly there are many people who would benefit from greater insight into how music performance skills are acquired. As alluded to above, not only would such insight be valuable to musicians targeting performance careers and music teachers responsible for the artistic development of their students, but many “ordinary people” would love to know how to make their own lives more musical.

I see the enterprise of scientific research to be a preferred alternative to knowledge gained through the traditional folkloric processes in the music world: the passed-down oral history of musicians through informal conversations, the sensationalized stories and interviews with famous musicians in popular media, and music teachers teaching performance the same way their music teachers taught performance to them. Admittedly, the insights gained by research may not be able to explain all processes for every case of music performance. But as an educator myself, I firmly believe that even when a strategy may not work with all learners, because we’re dealing with something as complex as the human mind, it makes sense to start with what research says works with most.


Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world class performers from everybody else. New York: Penguin.

Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. New York: Random House.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined: The truth about talent, practice, creativity, and the many paths to greatness. New York: Basic Books.

 Kaufman, S. B. (Ed.). (2013).The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaufman, S. B. (2015). Wired to create: Unraveling the mysteries of the creative mind. New York: Perigee.

Sloboda J. A. (2000). Individual differences in music performance. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 397-403.

Syed, M. (2010). Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice. London: Fourth Estate.

About the Author

Robert H. Woody, Ph.D., is a music professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an author of the book Psychology for Musicians.

More Posts