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Musical Skill and Deliberate Practice

Is time all that separates amateurs from experts?

By now most of us are familiar with the “ten thousand hour rule,” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. This is the hypothesis that to attain an elite level of expertise in a given domain – be it musical performance, athletics, visual art or playing chess – requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of deliberate practice.

But the role of time and deliberate practice in music is not so clear when we look beyond the top levels of elite performers to consider musicians who are still in the process of mastering their instruments. While we have evidence that those who attain the highest levels of expertise tend to start playing at early ages (and hence have more time for deliberate practice), the picture is more complicated if we consider students who are all playing at the same level. In fact, in comparisons of music students who are in the same grade-level, no strong consistent relationship between the amount of practice and the quality of performance has been found.

A study by Sloboda, Davidson, Howe, and Moore (1996) examined 257 young instrumentalists aged 8 to 18, playing at a variety of different levels. They found that some of the students attained high grade levels with relatively little practice, while others needed four times the average practice time to attain a given grade. A study by McPherson (2005) followed 157 children between the ages of 7 and 9 for three years. The number of hours of each child’s accumulated practice accounted for from between 9% and 32% of the variance in scores on performed rehearsed music. But hours of practice had no effect on other musical tasks, such as sight-reading, playing from memory, and playing by ear. In a recent study of 163 students, Susan Hallam (2011) found that the length of time spent learning to play an instrument and on weekly practice did not predict marks attained in graded instrumental music exams.

If spending more time practicing is not the way to master a musical instrument, then what is? What sets apart those who do well even though they seem to spend little time with their instruments from those who spend a lot of time and still struggle? Researchers are not sure, but one part of the puzzle seems to be quality of time spent practicing rather than quantity. Not all ways of practicing are equally effective. For example, simply playing a piece through from beginning to end was not a particularly effective way of mastering it. Going through a piece and working on the most difficult areas slowly and deliberately was a much more effective strategy. The most accomplished performers at every level also tended to have an auditory “schema” of the piece in their mind as they worked on it. They assessed their own progress against this schema during practice, sometimes recording their performances to help them judge their improvement.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of attitude. When learners believed that musical ability was not fixed but rather could be enhanced, they tended to have more effective practice habits and higher levels of mastery (Braten & Stromso, 2004).


Braten, I., & Stromoso, H.I. (2004). Epistemological beliefs and implicit theories of intelligence as predictors of achievement goals. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29, 371–388.

Hallam, S. (2011). What predicts level of expertise attained, quality of performance, and future musical aspirations in young instrumental players? Psychology of Music, 40, 652–80.

McPherson, G. E. (2005). From child to musician: Skill development during the beginning stages of learning an instrument. Psychology of Music, 33(1), 5–35.

Sloboda, J. A., Davidson, J. W., Howe, M. J. A., & Moore, D. G. (1996). The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. British Journal of Psychology, 87, 287–309.

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