Point of View
We asked eminent Australian
pianist/composer who began playing piano
at the age of three,
to answer the following question...
Is musical talent innate or
Response by Bill Risby
This question asks about music as a talent. Although music may be a
talent in a very broad sense, I tend to think of the intelligence being
required to make music (or anything else) being broken up into
emotional, mathematical/analytical, organizational (both macro and
micro), multi tasking (independence), and of course analytical aural
acuteness, and rhythmic awareness, the latter two which are more
specifically related to music.
I find that most people have all of these traits as part of their
intellect with perhaps the exception of the tone deaf of rhythmically
deaf, and those who have a mental disorder denying them a level of
maturity in any one of these traits (emotional, mathematical etc..),
commonly also lacking in their social interactions. A person can be
vastly talented at playing the piano yet lack the emotional content
required to make it meaningful. Likewise a person can play with enormous
feeling and emotion yet lack the dexterity or facility to carry their
song. A musical savant provides a good example here.
The level to which people possess these traits vary greatly, but
musical talent I believe is a combination of a personís intellect, their
early focus, and their ability to differentiate between sounds and
rhythms. I donít think a person is born with musical talent, although if
they were absorbed in music from before birth and in the early stages of
life they generally will have a stronger aptitude for music.
Language is learnt at a very early age, even before it is ever
spoken, as was evidenced by an example of my brother at the age of two
sprouting forth a long sentence hitherto not yet uttered from his mouth,
but clearly formed in his mind, using vocabulary common to my father at
In regards to music, I would say (and this is just my opinion) that
if sound in the form of music is given a chance to become an all
consuming saturation of our surroundings, no different from a language,
then it will become second nature. In so far as it has been with the
person from before they remember hearing it and the learning experience
happened by osmosis, music is innate (from the subjectís point of view),
but I donít believe music is present without being externally
introduced, so technically music isnít something that is innate, unless
you adhere to the wikipedia definition below that something is innate if
acquired during fetal development.
I am more inclined to think of music as similar to a language, not in
that you can communicate specific things, but in so far as you
play/speak without being aware of the specifics. You are not thinking
that the word "and" is spelt a n d nor are you necessarily even
listening to the sounds that you are making, and you are often not even
aware that you are making a sound. You are usually communicating with
the language that you are as familiar with as you are with your own
If you try and speak an unfamiliar language, even one where
you have a reasonable vocabulary, you are aware of the sounds
that you are making, and sometimes stumble on the correct word for the
The (wikipedia) dictionary definition of innate is:
- unconditioned: not established by conditioning or
learning; "an unconditioned reflex"
- natural: being talented through inherited qualities; "a
natural leader"; "a born musician"; "an innate talent"
- congenital: present at birth but not necessarily
hereditary; acquired during fetal development
I would consider language innate, even though I couldn't speak at
birth, and even though I had to learn to say Mumma and Dadda, and then
grow a greater vocabulary, and then learn grammar, and then sentence
structure, and then form, and then craft, and then art. I think the seed
of language was present at birth and even before birth, and just needed
to be watered.
And so it is with music. For those of us who were surrounded by music
from before birth (as I was), the seed was always there, and needed to
be watered. Through lessons, and people pointing out "that's an oboe!"
or "That's an augmented chord!" we can fill ourselves with the
vocabulary of music, especially if we have a voice (i.e. instrument) to
There are of course some differences between speaking and playing an
instrument. Apart from singing, we have to establish a certain degree of
control over a musical instrument that isn't a part of our bodies, and
an equal understanding of what we are hearing. Firstly, the instruments:
This can vary from a trumpet or trombone, where the breath from your
lungs makes a sound, to a guitar or bass, where your hands are touching
the string that makes a sound, to a drum, where your hand is touching a
stick that hits a skin that makes a sound, to a piano, where your hand
touches a key that hits a lever which triggers a hammer which strikes a
string which makes a sound. Each of these instruments show differing
hurdles to overcome in order to make an instrument a part of your
"voice", or in other words, an innate expression of your sound.
An understanding of what we are hearing is crucial, and can be
related to a keyboard, a set of patterns or note placement on an
instrument, a related colour, a visual interpretation of the sound (even
as simple as Up and Down), but most importantly the sound's relationship
to the instrument of choice.
Then there's the "vocabulary" or "Language" of music, i.e. the scales
and arpeggios, and chords, and harmony, and melody, etc... which needs
to be understood both in reference to our hearing, and then our
instruments. I mentioned earlier that we must have a certain degree of
control over an instrument. I often hear people referring to "Mastering"
an instrument. I don't think the idea of mastering an instrument is
valid. You can always ask any musician to play a piece as fast as they
can. After you've established that that was as fast as they can play it,
ask them to play it 10 beats per minute faster. I think you'll find that
you just asked them to do something that they can't do, much like asking
God to make a rock that is SO big that he can't lift it...
So we have to establish a certain degree of control over an
instrument, enough so that we can transcend the instrument and all that
is left is the person playing it, i.e. you. Then and only then is the
innate musical quality realised, and it comes through being learned and listened to.
As for those people who are supposedly talented at music without
having worked on it.... Well I believe they were listening all along,
and this combined with their natural intelligence were able to see the
inherent maths in music (Bach), or the inherent emotion in music (Rachmaninov,
Elgar), or the commonality of music in all of us (the Beatles, Glenn
Miller). Some people have all these traits in equal to varying measures.
© 2009 Bill Risby
|Scroll down to the bottom of the page to post your comments.