This is a guest post by Dr. Anita Collins. Anita is an award-winning Australian educator, academic and researcher in the area of music education, particularly in the impact of music education on cognitive development. Anita is a communicator, a conduit between neuroscientific researchers, music educators, musicians, parents and the general public, and works to update our understanding of the purpose and benefits of music education to overall cognitive development and health. In 2014 Anita was involved with the TED.com network through two project; as author of a short animated film for TED Ed and as a presenter at TEDx Canberra. Both of these projects have been very well received with the TED Ed film reached 14 million and TEDxTalk reaching 1 million views to date. You can read more about Anita and her work here.
This title could lead you the think that this article is going to be along the lines of “your child can do anything if they put their mind to it”. Well it is and it isn’t, but I will let you decide where you stand on the question of musical talent after you finish reading.
What is musical talent? The commonly understood definition would include an innate or genetic trait, something we are born with, something that is passed down through families who are labelled as musical. That definition has been immeasurably bolstered by the very public reinforcement of musical talent through reality shows such as America’s Got Talent, American Idol and The X Factor. The X Factor is now another way of defining musical talent – we know it when we see it, but how we know it and how they got it is almost magical in nature.
The thing is, our understanding of musical talent is getting less and less magical and more and more scientific. The use of the words musical potential and predisposition are becoming more prevalent in neuroscientific and genetic research and it is directly challenging the public and dare I say it, the media’s portrayal of musical talent.
We identify musical talent most often when we see it displayed on the stage; when a child stands musically, head and shoulders, above their peers. What we are witnessing is two complementary factors at work – a musical predisposition or potential and a high level of executive function.
What is “Musical Predisposition”?
Let’s talk about them separately for a moment. Research in the fields of neuroscience and genetics have begun to identify that there are “musical genes” for want of a better term. A ground breaking study from Finland in 2008 first identified the possible location of not a musical gene but an interaction between a number of different genes that could result in musical aptitude. Many studies have grown from this work and in 2014 a joint Canadian/Australia study got even closer to pinpointing the genetic markers for musical ability. Put simply, if a combination of particular brain structures and functions are developed, it might lead to what we know as musical talent.
The answer to the musical talent equation could be that simple, but this is not even half of it. An innate or born predisposition for musical ability is nothing without experiences in very early life that realise that potential. Put another way, a seed is just a seed until it is given the soil, water and sunshine to grow.
Musical experiences in early life are essential for innate musical ability to grow, but this doesn’t mean putting a trombone in a two-year-old’s hands and letting them just “grow”. Music experiences for babies and toddlers are as simple and as innate to new parents as singing to their child, speaking in an animated way, helping them to learn how to clap their hands together and exposing them to a variety of different sounds, including speech, musical and environmental sounds. It is that easy and already part of what we do quite naturally.
What those experiences do are develop three aspects of a young child’s brain; the auditory processing network which is being fed lots of auditory food in the form of different sounds, the motor cortex which is actually developed with the help of the auditory cortex as it takes cues from what we hear to teach the body how to move (just watch a toddler bopping to music in the mall), and the visual processing network through connecting where sound comes from, how it is made and how it sounds (which is a precursor to language learning). What all these experiences also do is prime a child’s brain to take on the next challenge of musical talent — learning a musical instrument.
Now that all the musical predispositions are firing as well as they possibly can, what does executive function have to do with musical talent?
What is Executive Function?
Executive function is a combination of skills which I like to call “being a grown up”. They are the skills we learn, through a lot of trial and error and serious lecturers from parents and teachers, through childhood and adolescence. They include being able to maintain our attention, focus for longer periods of time on difficult tasks, control our emotional reactions in both conflict and excitable situations, make good decisions, hold onto long-term goals and committing facts, figures, names and events to memory in the most effective way. As Angela Duckworth points out in her book “Grit”, these are all traits that are developed through learning a discipline such as a musical instrument, a sport or a second language.
This final list is a funny one, because they are all areas that the word talent is used; “she has a talent for playing violin”, “he was born to run” or “she just has an ear for languages”. All of those statements are true, but not in a simplistic, binary way. Children are born with a predisposition or a potential to excel at playing a musical instrument and I would include excelling at singing in this list, as the human voice is their instrument. The predisposition or potential is nothing without early “growth” and the right ingredients to thrive. You might think that the musical predisposition plus musical experiences in early life is enough, but it isn’t. Not to truly utilise all that learning a musical instrument has to offer for the lifelong leg-up it can provide for your child.
The gift of “Talent” lasts far beyond school years
It is the development of their executive function skills that are the true measure of musical talent. For a child to have the discipline to practice most days of the week for years, to battle with the emotional toll that the sometimes glacially slow improvement can bring, to adjust in the moment during a performance when things start to go wrong to still deliver a successful performance — aren’t these the traits of perseverance, emotional control, logical analysis and flexibility that we all want for our children to take out into the big, wide world?
Next time you see a performance that makes you want to say “Wow, what a talented kid”, maybe add some complexity to the statement that young musician deserves – “Wow, it is great to see how this young musician has enhanced what they were given through hard work, dedication, perseverance and determination. I wonder what amazing things they will go on to achieve in life?”