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Producing a Proper Musical Prodigy

Highly talented child musicians are fantastic to behold but not inexplicable.

Key points

  • Practically speaking, a prodigy is simply a child who can do musical things that peers cannot.
  • Prodigies are produced from a combination of environmental factors and personal characteristics.
  • Prodigies can be specialists or well-rounded musicians, based on the style of music in which they are active.

As someone who frequently puts the words music, learning, and psychology together in my professional activities, occasionally I get contacted by people who are interested in better understanding child prodigies in music. In fact, I wrote a blog post about child prodigies years ago. More recently, I corresponded with a writer working on a story about mariachi prodigy Mateo Lopez, who became the youngest-ever mariachi according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Paige Cody/Unsplash
Source: Paige Cody/Unsplash

My 2013 blog post does not look so outdated compared to the 1970 book The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy, which still readily appears among the results of an Internet search of the topic. Anyone who really wants definitive understanding of musical prodigies should be sure to consult Musical Prodigies: Interpretations From Psychology, Education, Musicology, and Ethnomusicology, a 2016 anthology edited by Gary McPherson, an eminent researcher and scholar in music education and music psychology. This modest blog post is no substitute for that 35-chapter volume, but because this is such a fascinating topic to many, here I offer my own personal FAQ about music prodigies.

As I have written elsewhere, the persisting myth of innate musical talent often does more harm than good when it comes to encouraging children to engage in music (Woody, 2020). And attributing musical ability to supernatural giftedness is a "throwback" to a time before human knowledge had advanced much from scientific study. In fact, researchers in music psychology have done very well explaining how exceptional music performance skill results from a combination of physiological traits and environmental catalysts (McPherson & Williamon, 2016).

What constitutes a prodigy?

There is no governing body in music that certifies young musicians as prodigies. Prodigy is a term that people use to describe a young performer whose abilities are exceptional. Use of the term seems to summon the realm of the supernatural. Dictionary definitions of the word prodigy include the descriptor "inexplicable" and point out that the word is derived from the Latin word for omen, which is a sign of a future event.

More practically speaking, the label prodigy indicates a young person who can do musical things that are not done by their peers. So it's really a comparative term. This is why we’re much more likely to hear the word prodigy used with young children than with adults. It is very difficult for young children to maintain their comparative supremacy as they grow up because their peers naturally become more capable themselves. What a teenager must do to be called a prodigy is quite a high bar, because, developmentally speaking, a great many teens and young adults love making music and are highly driven to achieve. So it’s much tougher to clearly stand out compared to all others. That’s why as adults, former child prodigies are usually lumped in with all musicians. Among adult performers, there aren't many musical skills that basically nobody else can do, which is what would be needed to stand out as an inexplicable talent then.

Also, very young prodigies, in terms of comparison, have the benefit of generally low expectations that adults can have of small children. What most young kids are capable of doing and what they actually do are usually two very different things. One area in which they match is spoken language expertise. The vast majority of toddlers become masterfully fluent in their native language. By the time they are preschool age, through speech, they can skillfully express feelings, be creative (make up stories), and even memorize lengthy texts—for example, learn word-for-word a favorite bedtime story book, all despite not knowing how to read yet. With the right opportunities and personal characteristics, kids can learn music in the same way. With music, they can learn to be personally expressive, creative, and able to memorize it.

What opportunities and personal characteristics can lead to prodigious musicianship?

In short, exposure plays a huge role, but, with young children, it needs to be the right kind of exposure. The ideal conditions for prodigies are when they are exposed to music with great frequency and consistency, and they experience it in such a way that it is rewarding to them. That is, they enjoy it, and they are encouraged to be involved with it by the important others in their lives. This is the nurture side of the nature–nurture debate.

In a way, we have definitive evidence for the importance of nurture. No newborn infant has ever emerged from the womb singing a recognizable tune or clapping a rhythmic pattern. In this way, we know that musical skill is developed and learned, rather than inherited as something people are born with. As people learn—as babies, then as children, then into adulthood—what they learn is encoded into their minds. Psychology basically defines expertise, in music as in other fields, as the cumulated knowledge and skills acquired and stored in long-term memory (yes, so-called “muscle memory” lives in the mind, not in the muscle!). So it’s likely not that prodigies’ brains are innately different than other children’s. It’s just that they’ve been able to build into their minds more music knowledge and skill and at a more accelerated rate compared with their peers.

The ability to sustain one’s attention is likely another very important factor. It is typical for young children to have a short attention span. Basically, they require changing stimulation to maintain engagement in something. Prodigies seem to have exceptional focus in their area of specialization. This is a matter of motivation.

What motivates prodigies?

A combination of motivational factors is definitely needed to produce a prodigy. It is not uncommon for parents to let their children do the activities that they enjoy—that is, what they’re intrinsically motivated to do. It is also not uncommon for parents to take a very different approach: After identifying an area that they think their children are “talented” in, they push the kids into discipline-based rigorous training, which requires much extrinsic motivation. Neither of these parenting extremes is likely to produce prodigiously skilled kids.

It is for this reason that prodigies should be celebrated. Rather than revere them as unwitting recipients of unexplainable supernatural talent (outside of their or anyone’s control), we should celebrate prodigies for the support and nurturing they’ve been provided, and for the personal interest and drive they’ve developed in themselves. Exceptional skill acquisition does require effort, usually through deliberate practice, which is why supportive parents and important others are present among prodigies. But to sustain that effort and keep the attention of a child, the area of performance must be genuinely enjoyable and rewarding to the young musician. What usually helps in this is when young musicians are allowed (by the adults around them) to do with their music making what kids like to do: have fun and be playful, experiment and “mess around” with stuff, and gain the attention and praise of others. This can account for the confidence that prodigies seem to perform with. They look like they are personally engaged and rewarded by their music making, and they enjoy the cheers and applause of adoring audiences.

Is it better for a child musician to specialize early or can being well-rounded be a benefit?

This likely depends on the style of music a child is doing. Extreme specialization—for example, focusing on only one musical instrument and one type of performance on it—seems to be beneficial in classical music. It reflects the value system of classical music. Other styles of music are broader themselves, and, as such, they seem to accommodate more breadth or well-roundedness in performers. For example, in much pop music, performers are expected to dance and exhibit other dramatic elements on stage. These visual and bodily aspects of music performance are not likely learned during long hours of isolated practicing of a musical instrument. So, to the extent that a style of music values other elements of “entertainment,” it’s possible that young music performers are advantaged somewhat by having other interests. Plus, more well-rounded young people may be better able to connect with audience members at a human level.

Another way to look at this is from a motivation standpoint. If children are made to focus on their music at the exclusion of other things they are interested in, this is definitely an impediment to the motivation needed to really excel. That said, some children may just love the music they're doing (intrinsic motivation) such that, in comparison, nothing else interests them enough to divert their attention. In cases like this, young musicians may be able to find the variety they need within their music activities. For example, a piano prodigy might be afforded the opportunity to write original music or to spend time at the piano just improvising and messing around for fun, rather than always feeling compelled to practice repertoire for a looming recital.

Although the word prodigy is derived from the Latin for the future-predicting word "omen," not every child prodigy goes on to have a successful career in music. Early burnout can be the unintended outcome of "hothousing" musical children—that is, creating a controlled musical environment designed to accelerate development (but that can be socially and emotionally stifling). Thus, the music prodigies most worth celebrating are not those whose performance skills are most difficult to explain but those who display great enjoyment and fulfillment in their music making.

References

McPherson, G. E., & Williamon, A. (2016). Building gifts into musical talents. In G. E. McPherson (Ed.), The child as musician: A handbook of musical development (2nd ed., pp. 340-359). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Woody, R. H. (2020). Dispelling the die-hard talent myth: Toward equitable education for musical humans. American Music Teacher, 70(2), 22-25.

Woody, R. H. (2021). Chapter 2 Development. In Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills (2nd edition, pp. 21-45). New York: Oxford University Press.

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