Musical Talent: Nature or Nurture?

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Since I was a very small child I have been creating melodies. I have always had a strong natural interest and an affinity for music, making up complex melodies and lyrics since I was a toddler. Friends and family say I was born with a natural singing talent. I believe that is because I come from a family with many members who sing and play several instruments, both professionally and for their own satisfaction. My talent seems to be something I inherited. However, if I had not practiced as much as I have, I doubt that my voice and ability to make up melodies and lyrics would be where it is at today. It is debated whether practice, genetics, or a combination of the two are responsible for musical talent. Some experts claim that if your family is talented you will be talented as well, whereas others say that ‘practice makes perfect’. Talent, specifically musical, is a complex and not fully understood balance of natural genetic gifts, and long hours of patient, dedicated practice learning skills and techniques. No one can exactly say when the first music was made but it is an important part of everyday life for many people. Andy Henion states that people “. . .create a rich variety of music, and most people enjoy music in some form. In fact, music is so interwoven into humanity that the ability to perceive and create music is present in all human societies known to date.” Music is a form of art, and art is a form of expression. Speak to anyone and they could most likely tell you what kind of music they listen to.

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“Musical Talent: Nature or Nurture?”

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All of these songs do not just come from nowhere, however. Someone has to compose the melody, learn how to play the instrument or instruments, and write and sing the lyrics. Not everyone has the ability to do this, or to do it well. So, what is musical talent and where does it come from? There are many components to what makes someone a musician, but the three main areas are vocal ability, knowledge of how to play an instrument, and the ability to compose songs and lyrics. So where do you get the talent to create music? Psychologists and scientists have debated for ages whether this comes from your genetics, or if it is due to practice. People on either side have reasons that seem to prove their theory. Some famous musicians have been said to have talent seemingly from the second they were born, and their stories are said to be proving the theory of nature. However, other people may not have shown significant ability, but learned how to be fantastic at what they do. There are even some cases of people having neither of these things and suddenly being able to be musically talented, as in the miraculous story of Anthony D. Cicoria, a man who had no talent and no passion for music until he was struck by lightning (Sacks). This kind of amazing mental change is uncommon but seems to contradict the nature theory of where musical ability comes from. SimplyPsychology defines nature and nurture in the following way: “nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception, e.g., the product of exposure, life experiences and learning on an individual.” (McLeod).

Nurture is how your development is influenced by your surroundings and your interactions with the people in your environment; nature is what abilities you are born with because of your heredity. Heredity is defined as physical or mental characteristics passing from one generation onto the next. Bret Stetka states that “Victorian polymath Sir Francis Galton — coiner of the phrase “nature and nurture” and founder of the “eugenics” movement through which he hoped to improve the biological make-up of the human species through selective coupling” believed that nature was most influential, and Stetka cites Galton as saying that “certain talents run in families.” The creator of the phrase himself believes in nature, that talent is due to heredity. One person that stands on nurture’s side in the debate is author Malcolm Gladwell. He believes musical talent is not something you are born with but something that is developed through practice. Gladwell wrote about this in his book Outliers. According to Stetka, Gladwell believes that “. . . greatness requires an enormous time investment and cites the ‘10,000-Hour Rule’ as a major key to success in various pursuits.” The rule describes that the ideal number for hours of practice is 10,000; giving you mastery of anything from violin to kung fu. It doesn’t seem realistic that someone who doesn’t have any natural musical talent at all inherited from their family would have the ability to develop it simply because of practice. No matter what side one chooses, both of them have many good points, and it is easy to see why one would support either of these options. There are still many studies being done to determine where musical talent truly comes from. In fact, psychology professor David Z. Hambrick did a study where he “. . .found evidence for gene-environment interaction, such that genetic effects on music accomplishment were most pronounced among those engaging in music practice, suggesting that genetic potentials for skilled performance are most fully expressed and fostered by practice.” (Hambrick, Tucker-Drob).

This study was done in 2014, where Hambrick and his colleague, Elliot Tucker-Drob, investigated further into a study done in the 1960’s where same-sex twins with musical talent were put in different situations to see whether nature or nurture was the key factor to their talent. One twin would practice, while the other would rely mainly on their natural skills. The study showed that even though one twin practiced more, they would still usually have the same level of talent. Discussing the study, Andy Henion states that “nature works in tandem with nurture.” This seems to show that even though practice can increase ability, it is not the only factor. The most logical answer to why people have talent is not just nature or nurture. It may be a complicated mixture of both. There is some evidence for this view in the stories of many famous artists, such as the jazz artist Thelonious Monk. Stetka discusses Monk and comments that “The famously precocious pianist was, as they say, a ‘natural,’ and by that point had won the Apollo’s amateur competition so many times that he was barred from re-entering. To be sure, Monk practiced, a lot actually. But two new studies, and the fact that he taught himself to read music as a child before taking a single lesson, suggest that he likely had plenty of help from his genes.”

Although Monk practiced, if he did not have his natural ability to start with, he would not have gotten as far as he did. One of the studies that was mentioned was Hambrick’s, which along with Monk’s story is evidence for why both nature and nurture contribute to musical talent. It’s your life post-birth, how you practice, and pre-birth, how your genes and brain develop. The brain is a very complicated organ, and I do not believe we fully understand it. This ties back into the story of Anthony Cicoria. Before his accident, he was a man who had very little to no interest in music but “In the third month after being struck by lightning . . . Cicoria—once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music—was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else” (Sacks). The fact that he had not had any desire to play an instrument and no recognizable talent, and how that changed so dramatically is very confusing. How would this link to the discussion of nature or nurture? It could be nature, due to how his brain functions changed and maybe stimulated some genetic material, or nurture because it was a situation that happened post-birth and would then be considered an environmental factor. Whatever the case, this is a very amazing thing to happen, and cases where someone’s talent, interests or personality is changed due to a traumatic event should be researched more.

Even though scientists and researchers alike have conducted studies to find out if nature, nurture, or both affect people’s musical talent, they have not quite yet figured out what truly is responsible for it. My own musical talent at singing and composing songs seems to be a combination of genes for musical talent strengthened by a lot of hours of development. While arguments for nature and nurture as a reason for musical talent both have many good points, it is quite clear that the closest explanation is that both heredity and environment contribute. As scientists keep on studying musicians and our understanding of the question of talent expands, maybe one day we will find out how gifted musicians really end up becoming so talented after all. Until then we can all enjoy the music they create even if we do not know if it comes from their genes or their environment or both. 

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Musical Talent: Nature or Nurture?. (2021, Apr 03). Retrieved February 2, 2023 , from

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