Musical Expertise: Is It Genetic Or Learned?

20 Aug

Much research has attempted to identify the mechanisms behind musical expertise.  Practice and exposure to music has shown to be highly influential and generally is accepted to be the driving force that separates the expert from the novice.  Frequent engagement with a musical activity can amplify performance accuracy and even enhance our cognitive abilities (check out the perception of vibrato in string players).  Passive-exposure and listening frequency has also been shown to aid in the acquisition of acute, perceptual abilities (like perceiving expressive timing).  Thus, it appears that certain components of musical expertise, such as performance technique and various facets of auditory perception, are susceptible to experience.

However, Elizabeth J. Meinz and David Z. Hambrick decided to explore the biological influences on musical expertise by proposing this question: if two individuals practice an equal amount with equal intensity, will they reach the same skill level? In this study, the researchers used piano sight-reading abilities to test this inquisition.

What makes sight-reading an adequate tool for evaluating the genetic factors of musical expertise begins with our working memory capacity (WMC).   WMC is the amount of information we can retain for the short-term while in an “active state.”  Hereditary and genetic influences have been found to affect WMC, while additional research also found that our WMC remains consistent over development.  This might explain why past research identified a correlation between a pianist’s sight-reading ability and the ability read ahead in a score (retaining information for future actions).

This study recruited 57 musicians, with 80% claiming piano as their main instrument, to participate in working memory and sight-reading tasks.  In the first part of the study, participants were surveyed about their music training.  Next, sheet music was selected at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels for the test subjects to read and perform.  For each selection, the participants were given 60 seconds to review the sheet music and were instructed to perform the pieces without stopping or repeating passages.  After the initial performance, the participants were given another 60s and a second opportunity to play.  Each performance was recorded and later judged by two experts who taught piano at a university level and held graduate degrees in music.  Additionally, each participants completed several working memory tasks that examined their WMC.

The data analysis showed a positive correlation between sight-seeing ability and practicing history, as well as sight-seeing ability and WMC.  The researchers concluded that practice pertained to half of the variance in the performance.  However, a substantial amount of the variance was attributed to WMC, an ability that the researchers concluded could not be improved with extensive practice, and therefore reflected innate abilities of the participants.  Thus, the results of this study illustrate how experiential and biological components contribute to our ability to sight-reading.

It need be mentioned that the type of expertise determines how these biological and learned skills interact.  For example, tasks that strain our working memory (sight-reading) might be limited by genetic factors such as  WMC, where as expertise with technical tasks (physically playing the piano) might be influenced to a greater extent by practice and experience than by biological predispositions.

Meinz, E.J., & Hambrick, D.Z. (2010). Deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient to explain individual differences in piano sight-reading skill: the role of working memory capacity. Psychological Science, 21(7), 914-919.

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2 Responses to “Musical Expertise: Is It Genetic Or Learned?”

  1. Travis September 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    Interesting study. Do you think this is contrary or support of the conclusion in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, in which he cites a study in which the number of hours one practiced was the main differentiating factor in ability. IE, does the difference in WMC make a big difference when compared to hours logged?

    • freezegelman September 7, 2010 at 11:01 am #

      This study can be a bit misleading. What the researchers are suggesting is that working memory (our ability to retain a limited amount of information for a short time) is influential to and determinate of “musical expertise.” Yet, what needs to be taken into account to understand the implications of this research, is the type of expertise the researchers are addressing. In this case, it is more of a “cognitive” expertise. That is, retaining note information (sight-reading ahead when reading a score) in order to anticipate future motor movements (what notes come next, where should my fingers be to play these notes?) that results in a “better” performance. But, this is true for similar cognitive tasks. Think of the game “Memory” where players must retain the location of specific objects. We might argue that the players who have a greater working memory capacity (the ability to hold more information for a short time) might have a “genetic” advantage to the game. In a sense this might seem obvious — individuals who have a better working memory might excel at cognitively demanding tasks. But as much as our intuition agrees, it needs to be empirically evaluated.

      What Gladwell is addressing at the end of Outliers is the prime argument for acquired expertise: that practice does indeed make perfect. And this approach seems necessary to explain differences in musical expertise, such as note articulation, playing technique, etc. We might say these types of skills fall under the “physically demanding” and thus what Gladwell is talking about reflects expertise gained by years of executing the same movements (practicing a piece of music, scales, or para-diddles have you). It should be noted that ear-training too, is influenced by the amount of practice.

      But what is different between learning a physically demanding skill and an individual’s working memory capacity is that working memory capacity cannot be increased with practice. You cannot “train” your brain to retain more information for a short time. There are memory tricks (such as associative learning) for long-term memory recall, but this is a different branch in models of memory. Thus the researchers in this study say the genetic limitations of working memory capacity (basically, what you genes you got for your working memory capacity), should be considered when discussing musical expertise.

      I however, feel that this study is limiting by the type of performance that was studied. Musical Expertise is defined by these researchers with regards to performances that require the use of a score, or during first-time sight reading. And as the results suggest, those who can sight-read further ahead in the score and retain more notes, do have an advantage for this type of performance, a reflection of working memory capacity. But what about performance that does not involve score reading? What about improvisation? Is working memory capacity as important then? Could we say then that working memory capacity is genetic to all musical performances, or just those that require the player to retain score information? More research would be needed to address this question.

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