Nature vs. Nurture: Understanding Sources of Musical Talent

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Nature vs. Nurture: Understanding Sources of Musical Talent
Patrick Usher
Penn State University
December 14, 2010
Nature vs. Nurture: Understanding Sources of Musical Talent

As a major in music composition, I spend a great deal of time meeting with many musicians of various musical disciplines. It is an obvious fact that musical talent is diverse throughout different musicians, and between these musicians and students in different academic departments, but the source of such diversity has been a mystery for decades. What causes musical talent to flourish in some, while others find different areas of expertise for their education? The study of such intangibles has been defined as “technical achievement”, which can also be applied to skills other than musical, other popular trends in research being talent in mathematics and athletics. As Levitin (2006) points out, scientists seeking an answer as to whether these talents are scientifically justifiable “define talent as something (1) that originates in genetic structures; (2) that is identifiable at an early stage by trained people who can recognize it even before exceptional levels of performance have been acquired; (3) that can be used to predict who is likely to excel; and (4) that only a minority can be identified as having,” There have been some interesting studies with musicality. More specifically, with a trait called perfect, or absolute, pitch. Perfect pitch can be a great trait for musicians; it gives you the ability to identify any musical note. Research suggests that this trait may depend on genes ("nature") and a young exposure to music ("nurture"). It turns out that nearly half of musicians who started music before age four end up with perfect pitch, while those that are starting musical study after age nine decrease their chance of having perfect pitch to three percent (Shenk 2007). But throughout all of these divisions of scientific inquiry, the same question arises: What is the association between Nature and Nurture when it comes to the attainment of different skill sets? Nature

From an evolutionary point of view, there are many theories that uphold Darwin’s model of natural selection. Csongradi (2001) argues, “Knowledge arises from genetic information honed by a process of natural selection. Some portions of this knowledge might be nurtured, but genetically determined forms also may modify how we categorize our experiences.” As far as evolution is concerned, we can assume a similar trend in the growth of a single human life. Levitin’s emphasis on identifying the skill set at an early age proposes that studying a child’s development is key, and is also a time when both concepts of nature and nurture come into play in a person’s life. As far as a suggestion of evidence of genetic information being the source of talent, while no physical genes have been identified, many traits in very young children would suggest that they do exist. Two-day old infants show a preference for some music over others (Masataka 1999), and nearly all infants babble with melody and intonation (Gardner 1997). While these early developments can be influenced by outside events, they clearly unfold according to a genetic design. Nurture

Others contend that we are all pretty much totally the product of our environments, that we learn to do what the environment rewards, and not to do what the environment punishes. This school of thought lies behind many discipline strategies that have existed in educational and parental structures and exist to this day, such as timeout, sticker charts, taking away privileges, and the occasional corporal punishment. Even early philosophers claimed that experiences are written onto the mind, which is essentially a blank slate, following with the assumption that we as humans have knowledge of the world because we learn from experiences. Scottish philosopher David Hume (cited in Csongradi, 2001) wrote,...
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