What Does it Really Take to be a Musician?

Features 15 Mar 2011

What Does it Really Take to be a Musician?

In his book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin sites several studies done on the workings of the brain and how it relates to music. There are lots of interesting tidbits on why we like what we like, how music has been scientifically shown to affect the brain and historical anecdotes on the evolutionary properties of music.

Especially interesting were his insights into what scientists think influences individuals to become accomplished musicians. Of course, there is so much about the brain that remains unknown. In fact, it’s always been interesting to muse over the fact that we have mapped large parts of the universe but have yet to fully understand even basic workings of the human brain. So, while there are no definitive answers to the question, the subject remains thought-provoking.

Levitan explains that over the last thirty years, studies have been focused within the context of general expertise. A renowned British psychologist, the late Michael Howe, performed a study with Jane Davidson and John Sloboda, resulting in “Innate Talents: Reality or Myth,” which appeared in the scientific journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1998. The study attributed high levels of musical achievement to be either based on innate brain structures (talent) or are simply the result of training and practice. Talent was defined 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 because if everyone were “talented,” the concept would lose meaning.”

While there may be genetic factors that influence talent in children, it’s difficult to separate out environmental factors such as motivation, personality and family dynamics.

Other studies that focus on the training and practice view looked at what it takes to become accomplished at anything. They examined accomplishments in various fields and then applied it to music. What they found was that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world-class expertise in anything. That is the equivalent of roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years.

So get practicing!

There is evidence to support this conclusion, as Levitin explains. There is also lots of evidence to suggest that this type of learning is accentuated in the early years of life; the pre-twenties.

I highly suggest reading this book and learning a bit about how and why the brain responds to music. I found the chapter on why we like what we like to be equally revealing.

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About the author

Rick Tvedt

Rick is publisher of Local Sounds Magazine, formerly Rick's Cafe, Wisconsin's Regional Music Newspaper. He is also the Executive Director for MAMA, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces the Madison Area Music Awards and raises funds to promote youth music programs.

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