Chasing Talent, Developing Skill

What defines musical ability, and how is it attained?

Steven Pinker
Sight reading

Why do we value musical ability?

In 1997, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker ruffled many music scholars’ feathers. From an evolutionary perspective, he claimed, music was the auditory equivalent of cheesecake – enjoyable but useless. In the years since, researchers have come to music’s defense, suggesting how music, more than a mere by-product of evolution, must have played a role in the survival of our species.

In fact, long before Pinker made his claim, Charles Darwin suggested that musical ability was related to sexual selection and communication. Studies have also shown that women at peak fertility were more attracted to partners who exhibited creativity. This suggests that musicality, as an indicator of cognitive and language abilities, is widely considered a desirable genetic quality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that music is often used in courtship.

Scholars are nowhere near reaching a consensus about the role of music in human evolution. But, the fact is, we have still managed to pass musicality on throughout generations. How could something supposedly ‘worthless’ be valued for so long?

A rare gift

When it comes to ear training, a fortunate few have it easier due to an innate ability to identify musical notes without any reference point. Someone with absolute or perfect pitch can tell when something is out of tune. On the flip side, this level of detail and accuracy renders every note that’s out of tune distracting at best and unbearable at worst.

A rare skill possessed by 1 in every 10,000, absolute pitch has been the subject of music research, including possible differences in brain structure for those with the ability. Individuals who have it exhibited larger auditory cortices than those without, though which came first – the skill or the enlarged cortex – is uncertain. Statistics also show that absolute pitch is more common among cultures that use tonal dialects, like the Chinese and Vietnamese.

Is it possible to develop perfect pitch? Researchers have yet to reach a consensus, though a relative pitch is certainly attainable. With relative pitch, one relies on a starting pitch as a reference point. It’s not quite the same skill, but it is valuable in mastering the language of music, and is certainly a welcome treat for those who weren’t born with perfect pitch.

A mysterious quirk

Another condition people may be born with is synesthesia, where someone’s sensory experience overlaps with or stimulates another part of their body. Researchers largely believe it to be neurological, suggesting that the condition arises due to crossed wires in the brain. If listening to music triggers a vision of colors in someone with synesthesia, it might be because the sound triggers two areas of the brain – one responsible for processing sound and the other for processing color.


There are many types of synesthesia, but among musicians, the more common ones seem to be sound-to-color and grapheme-color. With the former, certain sounds produce specific colors in a synesthete’s mind. Singer-songwriter Lorde has the latter, so certain words trigger equivalent colors and textures in her mind. Because of her condition, some music can overwhelm her visually. This has affected how she makes music, as she edits her songs down to a level palatable to her type of synesthesia.

No practice and no retakes

Arguably one of the most important skills when playing an instrument is the ability to refer to written pages of music and play a song one hasn’t played before. Sight reading is especially important for session musicians and orchestral musicians.

Often, these musicians are hired to play for a recording or a performance without receiving the sheet music in advance. To save on cost, there are no practice sessions. The first take is often the final take, so playing the piece convincingly well on the first try is crucial.

A complementary skill to sight reading, sight singing involves briefly reviewing sheet music before a performance and singing the piece, whether aloud or silently in one’s head. In doing so, the musician maps out the piece in their mind, storing in their short-term memory details like rhythm, dynamics, and tempo.

There are no shortcuts to sight reading and sight singing; the only way to improve and excel at these is to practice. Exposing oneself to unfamiliar music can help too, as it broadens one’s knowledge of various notations and patterns.

So many songs, so little memory

Yet another awe-striking skill some musicians seem to possess is an unlimited memory bank containing all the songs they’ve encountered in their lifetime. How can the random pianist at the shopping center possibly take everyone’s song requests without breaking a sweat? The short answer is musical memory – but not in the way a reluctant eight-year-old piano student might memorize a sequence to get their teacher off their back. Rote memorization has its limits, after all.

When musicians memorize pieces of music, they might use a technique called chunking. By grouping bits of information into chunks, musicians reduce the number of ‘units’ to store in memory. Instead of individual notes, they might remember a sequence of chords, similar to how we might memorize statements as phrases or sentences, rather than individual words.

Muscle memory from repeated practice works too, especially when combined with a higher-level understanding of a musical piece. When we know the message and feel of a song, it’s easier to draw from the big picture than to recall every single detail from memory.

A classic debate

According to psychologist Daniel Levitin, the distinction in music between experts and ‘everyone else’ has become increasingly prevalent. Society places professional performers on a pedestal, relegating everyone else to an admiring audience. This supposed gulf begs the question: what makes an expert? It opens up the classic debate of nature versus nurture, as well: are gifted musicians born or made?

Some studies show that certain genetic structures predispose individuals toward being musically gifted. Absolute pitch, for example, is innate. But absolute pitch does not make a musician, just as extraordinary height does not make a gifted basketball player.

Levitin cites research conducted with conservatory students in which teachers secretly identified a certain group as ‘talented.’ Subsequently, this same group paled against the ‘non-talented’ group upon reassessment. The defining factor – was practice.

As with many things in life, natural ability provides the lucky ones with a quick boost, but achieving mastery and developing true skill requires much more than luck. There is no shortcut, only dedication, hard work, and determination.

Beyond technique

The way music circles emphasize the importance of practice opens up another question. Is flawless technique the end game? If I hit every note accurately and with perfect timing, following every detail as the composer intended, will I have hit peak performance?

One could argue that excellent technique is not the most important thing in music. We see examples of famous performers, celebrated and well-loved, whose technical skills do not necessarily match up to their peers. As a vocal artist, Taylor Swift is plain and unpolished, yet she has a massive fan base and is far more successful than other vocalists who might be technically superior. What gives?

At the end of the day, music is a form of communication. Musicians perform songs to convey emotion, and listeners enjoy music because it elicits an emotional reaction. Insofar as a musician can artistically relay a song’s message to listeners, minor mistakes are forgivable, granted they do not distract from the musical experience. Now, the secret ingredient talented musicians possess that allows them to convey emotions through song, research has yet to discover.

Taking back hearing

Deaf people may not hear music in precisely the same way hearing people do, but they definitely ‘hear’ music in one way or another. Sound is a by-product of vibrations. Deaf people may not perceive sound waves like hearing people do, but their brains can process vibrations, activating the auditory cortex.

Interestingly, the auditory cortex is not triggered by signals sent from the ear, as one might expect. The brain of a deaf person would have repurposed this previously unutilized part to process touch and visual stimuli.

This means that a deaf person’s hearing is closely tied to the feeling of vibration. Beethoven, for example, was said to have played the piano on the floor after losing his hearing. Doing so gave him a better sense of the vibrations produced by the instrument, allowing him to continue composing music.

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