When it comes to musical ability, nature works in tandem with nurture, according to new research.
A study of 850 sets of twins finds that genetics and environment work together to help people become accomplished musicians. It’s another arrow in the quiver of the argument that both nature and nurture play a role in developing expertise.
“The nature vs. nurture debate has raged since the beginning of psychology,” says Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State University professor of psychology. “This makes it very clear that it’s both. Not only in the sense that both nature and nurture contribute, but that they interact with each other.”
The study, published online in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, breaks new ground in ascertaining the specific roles of genes. Essentially, it found:
Accomplished musicians practiced much more than those who weren’t accomplished.
That propensity to practice was fueled partly by genetics, which the researchers were able to establish by comparing identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, with fraternal twins, who share 50 percent of their genes. The finding suggests genetics influence the sorts of activities we pursue.
When it came to music accomplishment, genes had a bigger influence on those who practiced than those who didn’t.
Writers such as Malcolm Gladwell argue that experts are almost entirely “made” and that a lack of innate ability can be overcome with enough training. The way to master that cello, in other words, is to practice for at least 10,000 hours, as past research suggests.
But the new study, which was coauthored by Elliot Tucker-Drob of the University of Texas at Austin, challenges that theory by showing genes had a major contribution on the musicians who practiced and became successful. For those who didn’t practice, there was essentially no genetic contribution.
“Contrary to the view that genetic effects go away as you practice more and more,” Hambrick says, “we found that genes become more important in accounting for differences across people in music performance as they practice.”