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We asked eminent Australian
pianist/composer who began playing piano
at the age of three, Bill Risby ,
to answer the following question...

Bill Risby

May 2009

The Question:
Is musical talent innate or learned?


Response by Bill Risby share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

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 the time.

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 breathing.

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 situation.

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 express ourselves.

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.

Bill Risby

© 2009 Bill Risby


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