What Makes Great Musicians—Hours of Practice or Talent?

Twin studies help solve this question.

Posted Oct 21, 2014


Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele

Some people are naturally musical. They sing or play their instrument with feeling, perceive the distances between notes (intervals), and have a good sense of rhythm. As a piano teacher for 4 decades, I noticed some of my students lacked this talent in varying degrees. Those who didn’t have it naturally, even conscientious students who practiced a lot and tried hard, rarely learned to play as musically and beautifully as those who did.

My mother didn’t have it. She used to sing happily as she vacuumed and did other housework. I was about 4 years old when I noticed she would start a song in one key and switch to another key for the middle part, ending up on the wrong note. My older sister took piano lessons at about the same time. When she practiced, I could hear her rhythm was off. I wanted to take lessons myself because I was sure I could learn to play those pieces the way they should be played.

I must have had the music gene because when I was 4 or 5 I taught myself to play pieces by ear. Then at age 7 I convinced my parents to give me piano lessons and later I majored in music at the University of California. I studied piano with good teachers and was disciplined about practicing, but I lacked some ingredients necessary for becoming a concert pianist. I would have needed stronger fingers, nerves of steel, and a huge desire to perform.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that anyone can become a musician if he or she practices enough thousands of hours. I was skeptical, based on my experience as a pianist and piano teacher. My most musical students seemed to feel the music almost before they learned the notes. They made music that came straight from their heart.

Miriam Mosing, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, concluded that practicing without the right genes to back it up is useless. Her study of musical ability is described in the Economist article, “Practice may not make perfect—Musical ability is in the DNA” (7/ 5/14).

Dr. Mosing asked fraternal and identical twins to estimate how many hours a week they had practiced an instrument or singing. She measured their abiity to:

• hear the difference between two notes

• compare two melodies that had slight differences

• compare two sequence of 5 to 7 notes regarding rhythm

There appeared to be no difference in amount of practice and these musical abilities. “In one case the difference between two identical twins was 20,328 hours of practice, even though the pair’s measured musical abilities were found to be the same.”

The article concludes, “One other curious fact to emerge from the study was that the practice of practice itself seems to be under genetic control. Identical twins are more similar in their attitudes for practicing than are fraternal twins.”

There’s nothing like inborn talent. Loving the sound of a particular instrument can help, too. Artur Rubenstein broke his violin as a child because he hated it, then went on to become one of the greatest ever pianists.

See reviews of The Enneagram for Teens – Discover Your Personality Type and Celebrate Your True Self and order the paperback or ebook. Click on the covers of my other books on wagele.com, including The Enneagram of Death and Finding the Birthday Cake.

About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

More Posts