A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of Musical Instinct

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Why innate talent may not be the key to success for musicians

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Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That's exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning—a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

bookcover_crops.jpg In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical ineptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science's longest-running theories about learning—that there are "critical periods" in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

"If critical periods aren't quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams—whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness—as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure—than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons."

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning for his age group. The problem, it turned out, wasn't lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects—studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life—Patti Smith didn't consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino only relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, "Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play." So he confronted the fundamental question:

"Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?"

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can't be hardwired at birth.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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