Friday, 11 July 2008

Musical ability - is it all just practice?

When marvelling at the world's great talents, whether in music, sport or literature, it's easy to conclude that these characters are simply born gifted. But that's unfair. Take a closer look and you'll see these people practice. A lot. In fact, the Swedish expertise expert Anders Ericsson has argued that the difference between an average and an elite musician is entirely down to practice, nothing else. Put the time in and you could be Mozart too, so the logic goes.

Is Ericsson right? Joanne Ruthsatz at Oberlin College and colleagues tested the intelligence, musical ability and practice habits of 178 high school band members and 83 elite conservatory music members.

Results were mixed. Among the high-school band members, musical achievement was predicted by practice, but also by general intelligence and musical aptitude (in terms of tone and rhythm perception skills). Moreover, all three of these factors were higher among the elite conservatory members, thus suggesting that musical achievement rests on a mixture of hard work and inherent talent.

However, among just the elite conservatory musicians, it was practice habits alone that differentiated the very highest achievers from the less successful. This suggests that once a certain amount of innate talent is in place, only practice makes the difference to the ultimate degree of success obtained. Unfortunately the limitations of the study mean we can't know for sure if this is correct. The researchers cautioned that the elite conservatory members all had extremely high intelligence and musical aptitude by virtue of their having gained a conservatory place, meaning there was very little variation in these factors between individuals.

Practice can be the crucial mediating factor in the acquisition of expert performance, the researchers concluded, 'but only after the group in question has been selected for general intelligence and musical ability. Thus we are forced to conclude that not everyone can be Mozart, even if they start young and practice intensively.'
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RUTHSATZ, J., DETTERMAN, D., GRISCOM, W., CIRULLO, B. (2008). Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice. Intelligence, 36(4), 330-338. DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2007.08.003

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 comments:

  1. Ericsson is forgetting a simple piece of common sense -- you're more likely to spend the time practicing if you start off feeling more confident or enjoying it more to begin with.

    What would be interesting to see is a study of how far the worst performers were able to improve by practice.

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  2. I would think that the indicators of musical intelligence derive substantially from practice.

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  3. Another aspect that might not have been considered is quality of practice. That is two people spending the same time practicing might not have been as focused. Also the other two factors mentioned as correlating with musical achievement may or may not be meaningful. First off general intelligence is not necessarily a measure of innate intelligence. The correlation may exist exactly because of practice. Also musical aptitude is going to reflect musical achievement simply because they are touching on the same features and may both develop with practice.

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  4. What is missing is how much practice the students had done when younger.

    I bet that those in the Conservatory group had practiced more than the control group from a lot younger age.

    Most top-notch performers, started learning an instrument at age three or four and have then practiced for several hours everyday since them.

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  5. ulyssesmsu10:43 pm

    First, Ericsson discusses "performance," not "ability." Second, he does NOT say that it is "entirely down to practice, nothing else." He and his colleagues show, by dozens of carefully designed and executed empirical studies, that "deliberate, focused practice" plays a much greater role in the development of "expert performance" than has been understood.

    Furthermore, Ericcson admits that while innate talent is certainly important in leading one toward reaching and maintaining expert performance, talent alone is not enough. Here is where the "10-year rule" comes into the picture. Even Mozart, an acknowledged genius, had to work very hard for more than a decade before his natural gifts developed fully. The same is true of chess players, athletes, artists, and others who aspire to achieve beyond the level of the ordinary.

    Ericsson's books and articles are readily available, most free online, for anyone who wants to pursue this fascinating field of study further.

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  6. Anonymous8:00 pm

    i think musicians hear the music like someone smoked cannabis because if its effects be permanent im gonna be a great musician im sure and i can understand how a musicians feel when he or she play music.i play the guitar very well when i smoke i just feel the music

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