Hardly a month goes by without the discovery of a new musical prodigy of Mozartian gifts. Do they deserve credit for their talent – or are they just coasting on lucky genes?
Are great musicians just born talented?
Kind of. In 2008, the Journal of Medical Genetics published a study by medical geneticist Irma Järvelä from the University of Helsinki, which tested 224 people related to professional or keen amateur musicians. The subjects were asked to differentiate between different note pitches and durations.
According to the results, musical aptitude is nearly 50 per cent hereditary. Certainly, legends surrounding musical prodigies have long fostered the popular belief that talent is genetic. The most famous musical prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, showed musical talent from the tender age of three, began composing at the age of five, and to this day retains his status as one of the greatest classical composers.
But Mozart had his talent fostered from an early age. Wasn’t it all just nurture rather than nature?
Probably not. A 2001 study of more than 500 twins conducted at St Thomas’s Hospital in London found that 80 per cent of pitch deafness was related to genes rather than environmental factors. The upshot of the study suggested that if a child doesn’t have a musical ear, there’s no point trying to force music on them.
In other words, if you’re not born with it, there’s no hope.
Well, there’s only one way to find out if you’re musically gifted – and that’s to practice music. Many parents are fixated on their child’s inherent talents rather than teaching them important non-cognitive skills like hard work and determination. According to Melbourne University’s Professor Gary McPherson, it takes “10,000 hours of practice” before turning 20 to become a world-class musician.
Not many people have the stamina to endure that sort of regime, perhaps explaining why prodigies are so few. It looks like it all comes down to practice, practice, practice.
What about skills like perfect pitch?
Perfect pitch is the ability to identify a musical note with absolute accuracy without an external reference point. It is widely acknowledged that this skill is genetic and not a case of “practice makes perfect” – but the reality is more complex. According to psychologist Jenny Saffran, director of the Infant Learning Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, everybody might possess this remarkable talent as infants but very few of us retain the skill.
It might be a case of “use it or lose it”. Studies have shown that those who learn musical instruments from a very young age have a higher incidence of perfect pitch. Similarly the blind, for whom pitch is important for spatial awareness, are also more likely to possess the skill.
Does playing music to a baby in the womb result in a musical child?
According to some studies, playing music to babies in the womb encourages brain development – although not necessarily musical development. From around the 24th week of pregnancy, a baby’s sense of hearing has developed. Some experts argue at this stage it is possible to stimulate early learning by playing music, reading, or talking. Playing music to babies during pregnancy is almost de rigueur nowadays for erudite mums-to-be – and it certainly won’t do any harm.
So is classical music more effective than other genres in boosting intelligence?
Known as the ‘Mozart Effect’, the theory goes that listening to classical music can make you smarter. A 1993 study published in the scientific journal Nature found that subjects who listened to a Mozart piano sonata before taking a spatial relationships test did better than those who listened to different music or nothing at all. It was as if the Mozart artificially raised their IQ. The effects, unfortunately, lasted only 15 minutes.
Was Mozart music’s greatest prodigy?
He might be the most famous, but Mozart has some stiff competition for the crown of greatest prodigy. Like Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn also composed from a young age and, according to Goethe, bore “the same relation to the little Mozart that the perfect speech of a grown man does to the prattle of a child”.
Another contender is the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who had Beethoven’s entire piano sonata canon committed to memory by the age of 11. A modern-day match for Mozart could be Britain’s Alexander Prior, born in 1992, who clocked up more than 40 musical works, including an opera and symphonies, before his 20th birthday.