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What It Really Takes to Become a Musician

Humans are hardwired to be musical. Musicianship develops from several factors.

Most people who are musically active as listeners and concertgoers possess little skill as music-makers themselves. Very aware of this divergence, many express regret at not learning more about music earlier in life when they could have. Some describe being musical as a dream that was never realistically attainable because they were not born with the innate talent required. Can all children become musical? How can we know who has “what it takes” to become a musician?

Colin Maynard/Unsplash
Source: Colin Maynard/Unsplash

Psychological research has illuminated much about human musical development. Because human beings, as a species, are "hardwired” to be musical, advanced musicality is best understood as a skill set that is acquired as the result of a number of powerful contributing factors.

Admittedly, this flies in the face of a commonly held view that musical ability is rare within the general population. According to this view, only a few talented individuals can become musicians, and so a key task for the music profession is the early detection of talent so that it may be properly nurtured.

I would suggest that this orientation is quite archaic. From the perspective of scientific psychology, there are many reasons to doubt the notion of purely inborn musical talent and to challenge attempts to identify it. While some may believe greater musical skill is the result of being born with a brain well suited for music, an alternative explanation is that a different (more musical) brain results from engagement in music activity.

This latter explanation finds support from brain research. For example, differences in structural neuroplasticity between highly trained pianists and nonmusicians have been linked to their sustained musical training; furthermore, the pianist structural brain characteristics are more pronounced in those who began piano study early in childhood, as compared to those with a later onset of piano playing (Vaquero et al., 2016). There are many studies showing how the brain is altered by experience (Kolb, 2018).

Rather than accepting musical ability as a special endowment received by the gifted few, it is better understood to be a set of musical skills that people develop. Research has identified a number of factors that are powerful contributors to musical skill acquisition. It can be a difficult and overly academic exercise to explicate the many factors that contribute to the development of musicality, but the broad categories in play include physiological traits, opportunity/support, and learning.

McPherson, Davidson, & Faulker (2012) have emphasized the transactional nature of musical development. When people develop to be particularly musical, it derives from the “alignment of key and often wide-ranging transactions—across social, biological, psychological, and environmental spheres—that create promotive conditions for significant musical growth” (p. 183).

Physiological Traits

Individual differences in physiological human characteristics constrain the development of musicality. Some physical traits, such as muscularity and motor control, affect musical development, including performance skills on musical instruments.

Physiological traits also include perceptual capabilities. In a plainly evident example, children born deaf will surely come to understand music very differently from those born with typical hearing. It also has been suggested that children whose neurological makeup includes a particular sensitivity to sound may be especially attentive to and attracted to musical stimuli in their environments; such a trait would likely aid musical development (McPherson & Williamon, 2016).

Finally, some theorists have posited that certain psychological traits relevant to musical development, such as creativity, emotionality, and achievement orientation, are inborn; however, results of other research suggest that temperament and personality traits are more environmentally determined and situationally displayed.

The existence of physiological and psychological traits does not denote a “music gene” that predestines someone to accomplish significant musicianship in life. Even those who advance the role of hereditary characteristics in human abilities acknowledge the complexity of establishing genetic influence, which “does not denote the hardwired deterministic effect of a single gene but rather probabilistic propensities of many genes in multiple-gene systems” (Gagné, 2013, p. 13). Thus, it is incorrect to assume that people’s traits—even physiological ones—are genetically determined. With the exception of height and body size, people’s physiological attributes are generally affected by the conditions and experiences of their lives.

Opportunity and Support

Simple exposure to music typically marks the beginning of people’s musical development. Surely children can experience very different levels of musical exposure in their lives, ranging from musically rich environments—perhaps where music is very often heard, and parents, siblings, and other caregivers frequently sing and play instruments as part of leisure time—to environments where music is virtually never present. Greater exposure leads to a better understanding of music, which amounts to a better mind-and-brain readiness for additional growth and learning. For young people whose early environments include many opportunities surrounding music, their development can quickly snowball.

Young people who are fortunate enough to grow up in musically rich and supportive homes are likely to have greater musical access too. Thus, two children who seem very similar on the surface can experience very different levels of exposure, opportunity, and support when it comes to music. These differences can become highly consequential in development and the levels of musicality attained. The accumulation of opportunities and support helps determine people’s musical agency, i.e., the sense that they can be musical, which is a critical factor in achieving more advanced levels of musicianship.

Learning

The general public often equates the concept of learning with schooling and teaching. Indeed, formal education can be a positive and powerful contributor to musical development. Throughout human history, however, people have acquired much knowledge and skill through informal means. This continues today, both through modern mass communication technology and through old-fashioned face-to-face social learning. Whether in a formal or informal context, some learning can occur without learners devoting conscious attention, as with enculturation.

More advanced knowledge and skill acquisition, however, requires learners to apply deliberate attention and effort. Individual practicing and group rehearsing are time-honored staples of the musician’s life.

As it is colloquially used, the term "practice" simply refers to repeatedly carrying out an activity in an effort to learn to do it more easily or accurately. In the fields of music and psychology, the term “practice” conveys very special meanings. Although musicians can differ dramatically in what they consider to be good practice and they may not always articulate it clearly, researchers in cognitive psychology have offered the term deliberate practice, defined as effortful, solitary practice that a performer does with the specific purpose of improving skill (Ericsson & Harwell, 2019). Obviously, this type of practice involves more than mere repetition. It involves musicians in strategizing to get the most out of their learning efforts.

As a whole, psychological research supports a clear and coherent account of the development of musicality. Most children are born with the full capacity to engage with music. As such, music learning should be seen as a birthright for all children. Although many do not experience the confluence of factors needed to reach the expertise of professional musicians, virtually all people can develop musically and enjoy the rewards that music listening and participation can provide.

Note: This post is based on excerpts from a draft of my forthcoming book, Psychology for Musicians: Understanding and Acquiring the Skills (2nd Edition), to be published by Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2021 Robert H. Woody

References

Ericsson, K. A., & Harwell, K. W. (2019). Deliberate practice and proposed limits on the effects of practice on the acquisition of expert performance: Why the original definition matters and recommendations for future research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, Article 2396. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02396

Gagné, F. (2013). The DMGT: Changes within, beneath, and beyond. Talent Development & Excellence, 5(2), 5–19.

Kolb, B. (2018). Brain plasticity and experience. In R. Gibb & B. Kolb (Eds.), The neurobiology of brain and behavioral development (pp. 341-389). London: Academic Press.

McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J. W., & Faulkner, R. (2012). Music in our lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

Vaquero, L., Hartmann, K., Ripollés, P. Rojo, N., Sierpowska, J., Francois, C., Càmara, E., van Vugt, F. T., Mohammadi, B., Samii, A., Münte, T. F., Rodríguez-Fornells, A., &Altenmüller, E. (2016). Structural neuroplasticity in expert pianists depends on the age of musical training onset. NeuroImage, 126, 106–119. DOI 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.11.008

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