Is Musical Talent Hereditary?

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Question: If the piano was invented in 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori how can people be born with the ability to play the piano without a lesson, or a savant’s ability to play difficult numbers?

– Neil (Kingman, Arizona, USA)

Albert’s reply: Talent is primarily about potential rather than the innate ability to perform any given skill, no matter how natural that skill may seem to be. Some people are naturally faster, stronger or smarter than others, and these people naturally navigate to athletics or academics. Similarly, for the very reason you cite nobody is born with the ability to play the piano, but people are born with varying degrees of musical sensitivity and proclivity. Musical talent is a matter of aptitude, not instinct. Some people are born with greater aptitude, and they develop skill on a musical instrument much faster than do others and rise to higher stages of advancement.

Studies have been conducted on both musical ability and musical inability, revealing strong genetic components to each. A 2008 study discovered that musical talent is roughly 50 percent genetic, while another, published in 2001, revealed that about 80 percent of tone deafness appears to be genetic.

Is Perfect Pitch Genetic?

Even perfect pitch – the ability to name exact pitches upon hearing them – is a learned skill, albeit it one that most musicians never learn. The international standard of A440 (the A above middle C being tuned to a frequency 440 Hertz) cannot possibly be inborn – after all, this has only been a guideline for the past century or so, and it is by no means adhered to universally at that. In other words, the note we call A is purely arbitrary in terms of frequency and has varied very widely in different places over the centuries. Perfect pitch therefore develops – in those who have the genes or aptitude for it – simply as a memory of pitch.

Researchers at the University of California School of Medicine have discovered, for instance, that many people with perfect pitch (more technically called absolute pitch) can name white piano keys more easily than black keys, most certainly due to the bias towards white keys (with their simpler key signatures) in the early stages of musical training. They have also concluded, in controlled heritability studies, that absolute pitch acquisition is strongly genetic. (See the University of California Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study for details.)

Talent Needs Models

I think the development – and even discovery – of talent has much to do with models, which is to say goals. Without a model of what’s possible, a person will rarely, if ever, develop a clear goal towards which to strive. I believe that this is one of the areas in which music education needs improvement. While classical radio stations continue to disappear from the airwaves, the internet gives us all on-demand access to a wealth of classical music. The only problem is that we have to search for it – and how many children do so? Young people need classical music in their environment in order to awaken their love, appreciation and talent for music.

A Personal Story

Speaking personally, I think the lack of models is what led to my initial failure at the piano. A certain talent had been discovered when I was in kindergarten. The school principal would play something on the piano and I’d play it back, even though our family had never owned a piano. I assume I must have tinkered around with the piano in the classroom and maybe was starting to develop a sense of pitch, or maybe I just watched which keys he played and quickly reproduced them. (I have no memory of exactly how these tests were performed and doubt that I ever played anything back blindly.)

After a couple failed attempts at piano lessons as we moved from one town to another, my childhood teacher fired me, literally telling my mother, “Take your money every week and throw it in the garbage. Albert will never be able to play the piano.” I was nine at the time, and my entire childhood would pass before I ever touched a piano again.

Back then, growing up in the remote Pennsylvania suburbs, I never heard classical music beyond the occasional television commercial or Bugs Bunny caricature of the concert pianist. I had no idea that classical music was even still played or that anybody ever listened to it. It just wasn’t part of my reality. In fact – and I am ashamed to admit this – when I was sixteen and my high school literature teacher told me he listened to classical music, I literally laughed in his face.

It was the next year that I discovered both my musical talent and classical music. I was very lucky that my piano technique was largely inborn. I immediately had very fast fingers and willed myself to play Chopin and Liszt etudes within months of starting the piano. I obviously wasn’t born playing this music, but I did have the essential finger dexterity built-in. I assume I inherited that dexterity from my mother, who is the fastest and most accurate typist I know, although this is mere speculation.

Everything else I had to learn. I think if I had a student like me at seventeen or eighteen, I might fire him too. I couldn’t read music, I knew nothing of harmony or counterpoint or phrasing or interpretation, I had no rhythmic control, I had no idea how to practice or how to learn music. I had a decent ear but no real ear training. For that matter, I didn’t have a proper technique to speak of; I just got myself to play technically hard music, but I had no idea how to play it musically or expressively.

I was exceedingly fortunate to have found a series of top piano teachers, who gradually imparted the skills and knowledge needed to be a professional musician. More than sheer talent or aptitude, it is training and careful, hard work that ultimately lead to musical success.

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

– Calvin Coolidge

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