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The myth of musical talent

I used to believe in musical talent.

The greatest example of musical talent I ever came across was the début album of Aretha Franklin, which consists of her accompanying herself singing on the piano aged 14. Here’s a sample track:

How else could you account for such incredible playing and singing from a 14-year-old, if not by talent? I was so mystified I read her Wikipedia page, and discovered that her mother was an accomplished piano player and vocalist and that her father was such a successful preacher he was known as the man with the million-dollar voice. As a result of her father’s celebrity the family home was visited by all the greatest gospel singers of the time, such as Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke, who gave the young Aretha instruction.

Suddenly her abilities were looking less like talent and more like the result of thousands of hours of expertly-guided hard work. How could you not become a great gospel singer if you’re taught by the best in the world? I realized that to write off someone’s abilities as talent was almost an insult: talent is something you’re born with, but a skill is something you earn. To say that someone’s skill is the result of talent rather than hard work is like saying that someone inherited money that they made themselves.

Of course, you could argue that Aretha Franklin has a certain special something, but how can we work out how much is talent and how much is training? Who else had the same level of training as she had? Well, her sister Erma for one, but her sister was nominated for a Grammy, and apparently was only less successful than Aretha because she had a less forthright personality. So training still accounts for more than talent.

However that’s just one example. Let’s take another one, this time of Amy Winehouse singing Happy Birthday, at the same age:

Again, it seems like a miraculous level of musicality for someone so young, but just as before, if you consult her Wikipedia page you’ll find strong evidence of a lot of expert training while she was growing up:

Many of Winehouse’s maternal uncles were professional jazz musicians. Amy’s paternal grandmother, Cynthia, was a singer and dated the English jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott. She and Amy’s parents influenced Amy’s interest in jazz. Her father, Mitch, often sang Frank Sinatra songs to her

Let’s take one more historical example before moving on to my own observations about talent from lessons. The archetypal example of musical talent is Mozart. Haydn once said to Mozart’s father:

Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.

His reputation as having a God-given gift seems to be well-deserved. However, consider the fact that the only symphonies of Mozart that are commonly performed today are nos. 40 and 41, his last 2. That means that he wrote 39 symphonies before writing any that stayed in the repertoire. How many of us wouldn’t write a couple of good symphonies if we had 40 attempts to get them right? Mozart wrote 8 symphonies by the age of 12, and not out of divine inspiration, but because his musican father told him to. The amount of music Mozart wrote before coming into his own almost makes him look less talented than other composers.

So how does all of this affect you as a student? First of all, let me tell you of a couple of patterns that I observed during my one-on-one teaching days.

One is that any time someone showed signs of a special talent, I always discovered that they had a history of practicing that skill when I investigated further. For instance, one student was particularly good at playing by ear, despite never having tried it before. However, she’d had 2 years of classical lessons as a kid, and I realized that playing piano at all is a good preparation for playing by ear (a topic for another blog post). Another student could play several chord progressions from pop songs despite never having had lessons, but he was a music executive and had learned bits and pieces from session musicians, plus had spent hundreds of hours teaching himself through trial-and-error.

Another pattern I spotted is that different people were naturally inclined to be slightly better at some things than others, but music is actually made of many different skills, and no-one was naturally good at all of them. Music includes:

  • sight reading
  • playing by ear
  • manual dexterity
  • coordination
  • rhythmic sense
  • memory
  • pattern recognition
  • emotional engagement
  • performing instinct

Some students were great at sight reading but had a hard time remembering pieces. Others would memorize pieces because they found them hard to read. For myself, I’ve always been strong on the playing by ear / memory / pattern recognition side of things, and less strong on the sight reading / manual dexterity / performing instinct side, but perhaps that’s simply a result of my interests: I’ve always been more interested in composing than performing. So even when someone appears to have a natural inclination towards one aspect of music rather than another, even then it’s hard to say if it’s talent or simply increased interest.

The takeaway of all of this is: don’t let your study of music be hampered by a concern about whether you’re musically talented or not. Musical talent doesn’t exist. Music is something you get good at with practice, and practice is driven by love.