Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do hours of musical exercise help?

Last week I received an email from an enthusiastic amateur musician who was wondering whether indeed his teachers were right in stating that ‘to get better in music is mainly a matter of exercise’. Apparently he was doubting his talent for music: Would he ever come close to the quality of his beloved musicians?

John Sloboda of the University of Keele did an elaborated study in the nineties in which he proposed a number of challenges to what he called the ‘Myth’ of musical talent. Maybe four of them can provide some comfort to the hardworking amateur:

First, in several cultures a majority of the people arrive at a level of expertise that is far above the norm for our own society. This suggests that cultural, not biological, factors are limiting the spread of musical expertise in our own society.

Second, the majority of top-ranking professional musicians were not child prodigies. In fact, studies reveal that very few able musicians showed any signs of special musical promise in infancy.

Third, there are no clear examples of outstanding achievement in musical performance (or composition) that were not preceded by many years of intense preparation or practice (N.B. a twenty-one year old musician has generally accumulated more than ten thousand hours of formal practice)

Fourth, many perceptual skills, required to handle musical input, are very widespread, develop spontaneously though the first ten years of life, and do not require formal musical instruction (for the full list, see Sloboda, 1994).

So a talent for music appears not so much to be constraint by our biology as it is by our culture. We all seem to have a talent for music. Nevertheless, if you want to become good at it—like most musicians— one has to spend hours and hours doing it.

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