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Musical talent may be largely genetic, twin study says

Posted: August 14, 2014 5:19 p.m.
Updated: August 14, 2014 5:19 p.m.

"Researchers compared pairs of identical twins and found that no matter how hard one twin had practiced up to that point in their life, the other twin who had practiced much less still had an equal level of ability in certain musical skills."

 

Practice will only get one so far when it comes to music, according to a Swedish study of identical twins that suggests talent may be largely genetic.
The study by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm was just published in the journal Psychological Science.
"Researchers compared pairs of identical twins and found that no matter how hard one twin had practiced up to that point in their life, the other twin who had practiced much less still had an equal level of ability in certain musical skills," wrote Live Science's Jillian Rose Lim.
"The idea that an externally imposed practice regime can and will lead to expertise seems to be wrong," study researcher Miriam Mosing, a neuroscientist at Karolinska, told Lim in an email. "But innate ability should also not be seen in a deterministic way as, naturally, practice will (almost) always lead to an increase in ability (but not necessarily to high-level expertise)."
The study abstract notes the long and intense debate of relative importance of nature and nurture for different types of expertise.
"Music proficiency is viewed as a general model for expertise, and associations between deliberate practice and music proficiency have been interpreted as supporting the prevailing idea that long-term deliberate practice inevitably results in increased music ability," the researchers said.
But when they looked at the association between practice and ability in more than 10,000 Swedish twins, they discovered that the associations between practice and ability were largely inherited and "contrary to the causal hypothesis, nonshared environmental influences did not contribute. There was no difference in ability within monozygotic twin pairs differing in their amount of practice, so that when genetic predisposition was controlled for, more practice was no longer associated with better music skills. These findings suggest that music practice may not causally influence music ability and that genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice."
Lim noted that in one case studied, a twin practiced 20,228 hours more than the other twin without gaining extra musical ability.
It's not the first study to conclude that musical talent may be in one's genes. An article in Scientific American points to research by Michigan State University psychology professor David Z. Hambrick and Elliot Tucker-Drob, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas, using data on 850 same-sex twin pairs from the 1960s.
"Participants where originally queried on their musical successes and how often they practiced, both of which Hambrick found to have a genetic component. One quarter of the genetic influence on musical accomplishment appears related to the act of practicing itself. Certain genes and genotypes presumably confer qualities that drive some kids to hole up in their basement and, at the expense of their family’s sanity, perfect that drum fill — traits like musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation, that in turn could draw reinforcement from parents and teachers, leading to even more desire to practice.
"Hambrick's findings don't reveal what accounts for the remaining majority of genetic influence on musical accomplishment, though he assumes it's innate differences in faculties that would logically contribute to musical ability, such as sound processing and motor coordination."
The author, Bret Stetka, noted it's more complex than nature or nurture. Hambrick's data, he wrote, "show that the genetic influence on musical success was far larger in those who practiced more."
The role of genes grow as one logs more hours practicing, he concluded.
For other value to practicing, consider older research reported in Live Science.
"Laurel Trainor, director of the Institute for Music and the Mind at McMaster University in West Hamilton, Ontario, and colleagues compared preschool children who had taken music lessons with those who did not. Those with some training showed larger brain responses on a number of sound recognition tests given to the children. Her research indicated that musical training appears to modify the brain's auditory cortex."

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