Psychologists and geneticists disagree on the origins of musical talent

There were some 60 members of the Bach family over seven generations in the 17th and 18th centuries. More than 50 of them were professional musicians of one kind or another. Does this suggest that musical talent is in the genes? Or did it simply become the habit in these households echoing with harpsichords that each young Bach would acquire the skill?

It’s not just the Bachs. At this year’s BBC Proms concerts, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducted his violinist son Sasha. Yan Pascal Tortelier, son of cellist Paul, conducted other concerts. There were works by the brothers Colin and David Matthews.

The problem is that there is no solid evidence either way. Detailed genetic studies have been beyond the scope of science. The psychological research that has been done up until now leaves plenty of room for furious argument.

It is the old nature versus nurture debate, but with added layers of complexity and ambiguity. Professor John Sloboda of Keele University is internationally known for his work on the psychology of music. He and his colleagues reviewed the arguments on both sides in a paper published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences in June 1998. They “found no evidence of innate attributes operating in the predictable and specific manner” that they felt “talent” should produce. They concluded that “differences in early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training, and practice are the real determinants of excellence.”

Others disagree vehemently. Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, one of the world’s top experts in human genetics, says: “There is as far as I know no hard data on the genetic basis of musical ability, but I believe the circumstantial evidence for innate ability is overwhelming (as it is for mathematics), and this surely must be genetic.”

Whatever the answer, it has profound implications for how we treat people with talent, and indeed for the meaningfulness of the word itself. As it stands, “talent” is a term that is not merely descriptive, but freighted, fairly or not, with expectation.

In truth, it seems almost certain that both nature and nurture are important in forming exceptional musical ability. Take Michael Berkeley, the composer and Radio 3 presenter. He is the son of another composer, Lennox Berkeley. “When I was aged six I knew without any doubt whatsoever that I was going to be a composer,” he says. “My father said I wouldn’t get there unless I did a lot more work. I’ve always felt that there was something there, but that it’s a combination of the two.” (Lennox also worked for the BBC, and nobody claims that is a genetically inherited trait!)

What would constitute strong evidence for innate talent? Not simple excellence. That could be down to hard work. Perhaps not even exceptional ability in the young. Prodigies are individually remarkable, but there are so few of them; we still think first of Wolfgang Mozart, born nearly 250 years ago. The fact that music is present in all cultures would seem to argue for innate talent. But its varied nature and significance in different cultures argues against. (So for that matter does the strong sexist streak in music—those fathers and sons and brothers at the Proms. If genes are responsible, there should be as many women as men in music.)

What is known about the role of genes? Not much so far. We know that some diseases and disabilities are heritable. Some may have simple causes which may be put down to a single gene. In others, numbers of genes may be involved in complex ways. Leaving aside the fashionable euphemism “differently abled”, it seems genuinely harsh to categorise other capacities as disabilities rather than exceptional abilities. Synaesthesia is one—the capacity to associate sounds, objects and ideas with particular colours—a quality that has been possessed by several famous artists and musicians. Autism is an exceptional ability (for example to recall and manipulate numbers) accompanied by a general inability to perform more mundane actions.

Artistic talent would seem to bear similarities to these conditions. Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, Massachusetts, is a leading opponent of Sloboda’s argument. “One sees such exceptional abilities at such young ages that just seem to come out of nowhere that it is completely unrealistic to think that these are all the product of training,” she says.

It is hard to design experiments to test this, however. The obvious genetic path is to look at twins. But there have been few such studies, and the work that has been done has been flawed. “One twin study showed modest heritability, but I don’t think they were looking at extreme talent,” says Winner. With extreme talent “I would bet anything there is more than modest heritability.”

Another approach would be to isolate important components of musicality and look at them. Bodmer has speculated that perfect pitch (the ability to name or sing given notes) might be genetically inherited. Again, there is some evidence for this, but nothing conclusive. In any case, perfect pitch is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for musicianship.

If talent is genetic, Sloboda argues, then we should see many more prodigies, and in particular young talent arising in circumstances where it is not favoured. “Early ability is not evidence of talent unless it emerges in the absence of special opportunities to learn,” he says. Even that prodigy of prodigies, Mozart, offers evidence for both nature and nurture. His father was a composer, but he was also famously ambitious for his son, bullying him towards musical greatness. In his review, Sloboda concluded that the demonstration of exceptional musical skill tends to follow rather than precede attempts to encourage it.

Winner believes the opposite, that talent engenders motivation. “You cannot take an ordinary kid and make him or her so motivated that he or she will work in an intense way that a prodigy or gifted child will work,” she says. “A rage to master” comes along with the talent.

Early childhood experience is clearly important. Most parents sing to their infants. Music psychologists have established that very young children “understand” music, in other words that they have an appreciation of some of its basic rules. They react to repetition of themes or certain rhythms and harmonies. Problems begin to creep in as children get older. Sloboda reports that children learn to reject discords and unfinished cadences in their primary school years. But a discord in one culture may be sweet music in another. Perhaps there are two sets of rules, a lenient innate set that frames the diverse musical conventions of different cultures around the world; and the more specific rules that are taught, either explicitly through music classes or implicitly through hearing particular kinds of music. Thus, some composers believe not that we must learn to appreciate modern music, but that we lose our innate capacity to do so because there are no atonal nursery rhymes.

If musical talent appears unusually heritable (again, there is again no hard evidence for this, but it seems easier to recall musical dynasties than literary or artistic ones) there may a sound reason for it – literally. The foetal hearing system is sufficiently developed by the middle months of pregnancy that an unborn baby will react to loud music.

For performers, innate talent may be important, but so is something else. As the New York taxi driver said to the woman who asked, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”: “Practise, lady, practise.” Physical attributes may be important too. Sloboda mentions the vocal tract characteristics required by opera singers. Pianists must have a sufficient hand span.

But it is curious that some researchers are prepared to accept that these physical qualities, and even particular facilities such as perfect pitch, could be innate, while claiming that the mental attributes to be a musician must be learned. This may simply indicate that we tend to neglect the effect of that which we cannot see. In fact, differences in brain development have been observed in “talented” people, but it is still not clear whether these are caused by the genes or by particular mental activity during brain development.

Looking at composers rather than performers may clear up some of the confusion. Composers don’t need to be any special size or shape. They don’t practise, at least not in the way that performers do, according to Dean Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California Davis. “This is not to say that composers do not have to learn their trade. It’s just that the correspondence between years of practice and virtuosity is very high for performers, but much lower for composers.”

Contrary to what one might expect, Simonton has found that “the most famous composers actually had fewer years of formal music training before they began composition, and were composing for fewer years before they began producing masterpieces.” Berkeley’s case would also seem to argue for nature: he knew he would be a composer long before he began to compose. “I knew that I would write music, but I was unable to focus my mind and start until my mid 20s.” How did he know? “Because everything I felt profoundly about, things that moved me, emotions, manifested themselves as sounds in my head. I also concocted in my mind wonderful musical landscapes.”

The Matthews’ experience perversely seems to disown both nature and nurture. “With us it’s very odd indeed,” says Colin Matthews. “We come from a pretty unmusical family. Nor did we have a particular musical upbringing, although we were both were reasonable pianists. Suddenly, both of us got struck by a bug. It was a conviction of wanting to become a composer.” Composition is notoriously difficult to teach, Matthews adds. “No two composers really learn or work in the same way. I sometimes think you’re either a composer or you’re not.”

Bizarre anecdotes and dodgy correlation studies are all very well, but as Sir Walter Bodmer says: “Until proper genetic marker studies are done, as for any disease study nowadays, I don’t think there will be much more concrete to say about this.”

Those studies are just beginning. For example, general cognitive ability (shortened as g), conventionally if inadequately measured by IQ tests, is widely thought to be heritable. Earlier this year, Professor Robert Plomin and co-workers at the Maudsley’s Institute of Psychiatry published the results of DNA marker studies (a means of tagging individual genes in order to establish their influence on attributes) which suggest that a particular gene is associated with high IQ. The gene also correlated with mathematical and verbal precocity. This is far from the whole story, however. “It is not the gene for g, but one of many genes responsible for the high heritability of g,” says Plomin.

Among those who support the nature side of debate, there is at least agreement that there will be no one gene for musical talent. “My own view about genes and complex abilities is that it is not a one-to-one correspondence,” says Professor Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution.

Not only may many genes lie behind musical talent, but those genes may be responsible for several areas of ability. “I think the problem may be that there’s no one gene associated with musical talent, but rather a large number, some of which may not be unique to music,” says Simonton. Here may lie the key to the often noted links between musical talent and mathematical or artistic ability or synaesthesia.

Meanwhile, perceptions of talent have had an unfortunate influence on music education. Surveys suggest that most music teachers in schools believe that some children have innate gifts while others do not. These teachers then see their task as identifying those “talented” individuals and fostering that talent. This seems a logical if harsh course of action if musical ability really is inherited. But if “talent” is merely an artefact of our environment—a spiral in which a slightly above average ability revealed by chance at a crucial moment is seized upon by a teacher who then sets challenges and encourages further ability—then this policy is cruelly unfair on “ungifted” pupils. The same argument goes for other fields from visual arts to mathematics where giftedness is thought important.

From their position that genes are unimportant, Sloboda’s group state that “categorising some children as innately talented is inherently discriminatory. The evidence suggests that such categorisation is unfair and wasteful, preventing young people from pursuing a goal because of the unjustified conviction of teachers or parents that certain children would not benefit from the superior opportunities given to those who are deemed to be talented.”

And if it’s all in the genes, then we’ll just have to wait for the therapies to become available that will bring music into our families as it was in Bach’s.

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