Music Lessons and Genes

Music Lessons and Genes August 27, 2020

This post was prompted by a piece written by Carol Westbrook in which she writes:

Anyone can take lessons. Studies have shown that you could become proficient in just about any skill, from sports to playing guitar, after you have put in about 10,000 hours of practice. But that doesn’t lead to musical ability. Putting in your hours is learning by memorization and rote; children who don’t have musical ability will hate it and quit when they have the chance. Or when their piano teacher dies.

For others, music lessons just “click” and they find they can do it easily…Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a DNA test or other test that could tell which of our children have musical ability and which do not? Why spend the money and effort for weekly piano lessons, why put a down payment on that piano, when your kid will quit? How can we tell if a child potentially has talent?

I would very much like to hear from the people I know with greater expertise than my own on the connections that actually exist between genetics and things like musical ability. My inclination is to push back against this article as making excuses, even if ones that are very widespread and common. It is certainly true that some have greater natural aptitude for certain things than others do. But how much is actually genetic in character? Musical ability may run in families by way of nurture, not nature. It may of course be both. Can we ever tell? Looking into it a little, there do seem to be studies that strongly indicate that nature plays a significant and perhaps the most decisive role. I’m worried, however, about moving from there to a world akin to GATTACA in which we screen for ability and those without simply needn’t bother doing anything in that domain.

On the one hand, I am convinced that just because we cannot all dedicate the time and effort to becoming truly great at something, it is worth doing many things at some level. Sometimes we’ll become “quite good.” Other times we’ll merely dabble in a minimal way. Even that little bit of knowledge and experience has profound benefit, I believe. On the other hand, I think that many of us think we’re not good at math, or music, or writing because of how we were taught, what age we began to be exposed to this skill and cultivate it, and a whole host of other factors.

Let me give myself as an example: I “couldn’t sing.” I dared to try doing it anyway, a little, in church, since I was involved in music playing piano and/or keyboard and sometimes it is useful to be able to lead the singing. I went further and took lessons. It was daunting and uncomfortable because of how much it took me beyond my zone of confidence. And I am so glad I did, not just because my singing has improved, and my public speaking that relies on many of the same skills, but also because of what it taught me as an educator and as a human being as I put myself into the role not just of student, but of beginner student, for the first time in a really long time.

I am still not great. But I think I’ve improved. Here are a few re-recordings of educational parody videos I made. I first shared versions of them several years ago. The singing isn’t great, by any means. If anyone is inclined to do better cover versions, I’d welcome that. But I’m much happier with these than the earlier ones. You can find the previous versions in my YouTube channel if you’re inclined to compare.

What are your thoughts on the bigger issue, though? Not so much the question of whether talent is innate or learned or a combination, but whether pursuing improvement in a skill is worthwhile even if one lacks the thing that others have, whether it be in their genes or their upbringing? It seems to me that if we abandon the principle when it comes to music and the arts, that is as bad as allowing people to think they are simply not good at reading, writing, speaking, math, or anything else, when in most instances that impression is due to their experience, whether poor teachers or a failure to foster these things in childhood. Either way it does a disservice and allows societal inequities to continue to be perpetuated generation after generation.

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