The Genetic Basis of Talent

As a piano teacher, I almost never encounter people who believe that talent does not exist or that it plays only a negligible role in determining how quickly musical skill is acquired or how far one can ultimately go in musical mastery, especially among my experienced piano-teaching peers.  Outside of the field of teaching, I encounter this belief once in a while, especially on the Internet.  This is what prompted me to write my Talent’s Role In Artistry article in 2009 as well as my Expertise Is Not The Result Of Pure Discipline article in 2010.  I wanted to follow up with one more article on talent, this time focusing mostly on research that addresses the genetic basis of talent.

The idea that talent has genetic basis can be difficult for some to accept.  So let’s first consider just how far genetics reaches into our lives.  Genetics has been shown to have a profound effect on how likely one is to:

Shown above: a computer-generated model of the single “magic bullet” talent gene that must be proven to exist before some will believe that talent has any genetic basis.

One argument I’ve heard against the idea that talent has genetic basis is, “Since they haven’t identified any talent genes, talent hasn’t been shown yet to be genetically based.”  This argument is an oversimplification of how genetics works.  It would suggest that, from the list above, we must have found a “liberal gene,” a “survey gene,” a “infidelity gene,” etc., when in fact there are surely hundreds or possibly thousands of genes that all contribute to things like political ideology and sexual promiscuity.  Talent doesn’t work any differently than these listed tendencies.  Talent in anything (whether music, sports or chess) is always going to be a very complicated combination of a multitude of genes that all contribute in some small way.

Not only that, but not a single gene that contributes to musical talent is a gene that contributes only to musical talent.  For example, a gene that makes a person taller may make a person more talented at basketball, but to call this gene a “basketball gene” would be ridiculous since tallness will also contribute to a person’s talent in volleyball and many other sports.  It could make a person less talented in certain other sports – perhaps gymnastics or ping pong.  There is no magical “cancer” gene, and yet so many genes have already been found to contribute to cancer’s likelihood (genes that also surely contribute to a huge number of other things too, not just cancer).  Over 50 genes have been associated with multiple sclerosis alone.  In this sense, many genes have already been found that contribute to musical talent.

One must also consider that the piano was invented around the year 1700. To expect that we must find some gene that evolved or mutated in the past 300 years in order to specifically accomodate playing a man-made instrument is scientifically unreasonable.

Perhaps the most common argument used is the fallacious use of inverse relationship.  Pointing to various examples and new discoveries of how important hard work is (such as how neuroplasticity can battle genetic predisposition) or how our environment affects us, these discoveries are somehow supposed to diminish the role that talent plays in developing musical skill.  Discoveries on the “nurture” side of the success equation validate the role of nurture;  they do not invalidate the role of nature.

The Role of Cognitive Ability in Talent

Talent (musical or otherwise) can be defined as a genetic predisposition to excel, and there are many factors that contribute to musical talent.  Some examples include being extremely coordinated, having a hand shape that facilitates stretches, having heightened pitch perception (leading to development of perfect pitch at a very young age), posessing exceptional rapid muscle twitching abilities, having heightened perception of rhythm, or having heightened emotional response to music.

There are studies that go straight to the heart of the matter, such as a 2001 study that shows musical pitch recognition to be significantly heritable (somewhere between 71%-80%), a 1998 editorial that concludes that perfect (or absolute) pitch has a “substantial genetic component,” or a 2011 study which provides biological basis for the fact that auditory working memory and musical aptitude are intrinsically related to reading ability.  But many factors that contribute to musical talent don’t need to be measured directly in the context of music. General cognitive ability could be the most significant factor;  to say that we use our brains when we practice or perform music would be an understatement.  Study after study has shown that there are few (if any) activities which use the brain as intensely and robustly as music does.  This is because, unlike chess or academics (which only use cognition), music is a synthesis of cognition, physical coordination, and synchronization of sound in time.  This isn’t just true for the concert pianist;  it is also true for the beginning piano student.

A good definition of “cognition” would be “mental processes,” and I’d define mental processes to include everything that the mind does from beginning to end of any rational thought, such as evaluating sensory input, storing memories, accessing memories, calculating/problem solving, etc.  Heightened cognitive abilities may mean a person has a higher cognitive “ceiling” than others (i.e. they can achieve a higher level of mastery), it could mean that they acquire new skills more quickly, or both.  In any case, intelligence is a special case of cognition:  while cognition looks at all mental processes of rational thought, intelligence looks more specifically at reasoning, problem solving, memory, etc. (not necessarily sensory input, which is part of cognition).  This means that cognition inherits any conclusion drawn about intelligence, and that is why it is accurate to substitute this idea of “cognition” any time the word “intelligence” is used in the studies below.  Authors of these studies are not conducting research on knowledge people have acquired;  they are investigating peoples’ ability to learn quickly and thoroughly.  Claiming these studies are not accurate due to “poorly-defined terms” is an attempt to cast doubt where it has no place.

Finally, I will use the word “genetic” to refer to the phenomenons of inheritance and mutation.  For example, speaking French is not “genetic” since one does not learn language through inheritance or mutation.  On the other hand, being tall is “genetic” since genetic code (whether through inheritance or mutation) is responsible for height.  And even though environmental factors can sometimes have even more affect on one’s height than genes (such as with injury), tallness is still no less “genetic”.

Having established basic terms, there is no question that cognitive ability has strong genetic basis:

  • Genetic variation in DTNBP1 influences general cognitive ability (2006) – “Human intelligence is a trait that is known to be significantly influenced by genetic factors, and recent linkage data provide positional evidence to suggest that a region on chromosome 6p, previously associated with schizophrenia, may be linked to variation in intelligence.”
  • DNA markers associated with high versus low IQ: The IQ quantitative trait loci (QTL) project (1994) – “General cognitive ability (intelligence, often indexed by IQ scores) is one of the most highly heritable behavioral dimensions. In an attempt to identify some of the many genes (quantitative trait loci; QTL) responsible for the substantial heritability of this quantitative trait…”
  • DNA Pooling Identifies QTLs on Chromosome 4 for General Cognitive Ability in Children (1999) – “General cognitive ability (g), which is related to many aspects of brain functioning, is one of the most heritable traits in neuroscience. Similarly to other heritable quantitatively distributed traits, genetic influence on g is likely to be due to the combined action of many genes of small effect [quantitative trait loci (QTLs)], perhaps several on each chromosome.”  This confirms that expecting scientists to discover a single “talent gene” solely responsible for talent is an absurd requirement.  Demanding that a “quantitatively distributed trait” be reduced down to a single gene is an impossible criterion.
  • The molecular genetics of cognition: dopamine, COMT and BDNF (2005) – “The important contribution of genetic factors to the development of cognition and intelligence is widely acknowledged…”
  • Genetics and intelligence: What’s new? (1997) – “Nature as well as nurture contributes to the development of individual differences in intelligence.  Genetic research on intelligence has moved beyond this rudimentary nature-nurture question…”

It’s clear that cognitive abilities are heritable and mutable, but how significant is the impact of genes on cognitive ability?  The underlined phrases in the top three studies above give indication that it is strong, but for more precision, three studies have shown that this influence is approximately 60 percent:

  • Heritability of Educational Achievement in 12-year-olds and the Overlap with Cognitive Ability (2002) – “The results of the analyses pointed to genetic effects as the main source of variance in CITO [a national test measuring academic achievement] and an important source of covariance between CITO and IQ. Additive genetic effects accounted for 60% of the individual differences found in CITO scores in a large sample of Dutch 12-year-olds.”
  • Genetic Influences on Cost-Efficient Organization of Human Cortical Functional Networks (2011) – “At the global network level, 60% of the interindividual variance in cost-efficiency of cortical functional networks was attributable to additive genetic effects.”
  • Socioeconomic Status Modifies Heritability of IQ in Young Children (2003) – “The models suggest that in impoverished families, 60% of the variance in IQ is accounted for by the shared environment, and the contribution of genes is close to zero; in affluent families, the result is almost exactly the reverse.”  Science Daily summarized this study with these words: “Half of the gains that wealthier children show on tests of mental ability between 10 months and 2 years of age can be attributed to their genes, the study finds.”

Regarding the last study, it would appear that impoverished families are not doing much to harvest their childrens’ cognitive abilities at home, so the only cognitive nurturing these children receive is at school, which means very few of these children, if any, are reaching their full cognitive potential.  But children in affluent families are apparently spending plenty of time nurturing their kids at home, and this nurturing is enabling all these kids to realize their full cognitive potential, which then enables their genes to truly show.  In other words, when all else is equally there (nurturing and hard work), genetics apparently makes a 60% difference in cognitive ability.  Another study shows that this influence might be somewhere between 40-50 percent.  Regardless, study after study has shown that cognitive ability isn’t just a function of nurture, and that the nature side of the equation is quite considerable.

This also has a down side.  Cognitive disability is also both heritable and able to be produced through genetic mutation.  In addition to the many forms of mental retardation that are proven to be genetically-based (such as Fragile X Syndrome, the most common heritable form of mental retardation), here is some recent research:

We can only assume that mutation can also be responsible for increased cognitive abilities.  In fact, if this were not true, humans could not have evolved into the intelligent creatures they are today.

The second question we must answer is: does this heritable and mutable trait of cognitive ability have any effect upon learning music?  To teachers, this is a question of such rhetorical nature that it borders on lunacy, but for those who have doubts, we have this study:

Cognition itself is a hugely complex phenomenon.  There are probably many thousands of ways that our cognition can be affected by genes, and again, there are many factors other than cognition that contribute to musical talent.

Other Genetic Influences On Talent

Another huge contributing factor to talent would be the area of physical coordination.  Consider this research:

  • Motor immaturity and specific speech and language impairment: Evidence for a common genetic basis (2001) – “It is concluded that genes that put the child at risk for communicative problems also affect motor development, with the association being most evident when speech production is affected.”
  • Genetic and extragenetic variance in motor performance (1977) – “Analyses of the data disclosed that a greater proportion of genetic factors, as opposed to nongenetic factors, appears to account for existing individual differences in motor performance among individuals subject to similar environmental conditions.”
  • Genetic and environmental contributions to the acquisition of a motor skill (article, 1996) – “We propose that the effect of practice is to decrease the effect of environmental variation (previous learning) and increase the relative strength of genetic influences on motor performance.”
  • Genetic Basis for Muscle Endurance Discovered in Animal Study (2011) – “…mice lacking the gene run six times longer than control mice and that the fatigable muscles of the mouse — the fast muscle in the front of the leg — have been reprogrammed and are now fatigue-resistant.”  And:  “The investigators also showed that the gene is linked to Olympic-level athletes in endurance sports such as swimming compared to athletes in sprint sports such as the 100-meter dash.”  Just about any 90-minute program given by any concert musician (not just pianists) would be greatly helped by any endurance advantage, especially when virtuoso repertoire is part of the program.

In the area of rhythm and meter, consider a study that shows that dyslexia gives students trouble with meter:

  • Music, rhythm, rise time perception and developmental dyslexia: Perception of musical meter predicts reading and phonology (2010) – “We show that individual differences in the perception of amplitude envelope rise time are linked to musical metrical sensitivity, and that musical metrical sensitivity predicts PA and reading development, accounting for over 60% of variance in reading along with age and I.Q. Even the simplest metrical task, based on a duple metrical structure, was performed significantly more poorly by the children with dyslexia.”  Click here to see a study showing the genetic basis for dyslexia.  (Is it just me, or is the repeated appearance of the 60% genetic influence figure getting kind of spooky?)

There are somewhere around 23,000 genes in the human genome.  Even without the studies and articles referenced, it is hard to imagine that not a single one of those genes will have any negative or positive effect upon our musical pursuits when we find out (on a daily basis!) the limitless ways that genes impact who we are.

Genetics in Motivation, Environmental Benefit & Hard Work

Most people agree that nature means nothing without nurture.  In this regard, nurturing is “harvesting” the talent.  There are about a million quotations by famous people that say as much, and every music teacher on Earth can verify this by their own experience in teaching. However, there also seems to be an inverted relationship between the two:  talent also encourages/facilitates nurturing:

  • Added Value Measures in Education Show Genetic as Well as Environmental Influence (2011) – This study says that children’s genes influence how well they take advantage of education: “The pervasiveness of genetic influence in how and how much children learn is compatible with an active view of learning in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the basis of their genetic propensities.”

Our genes don’t just affect our own ability to benefit from our environment.  They affect those around us too:

Not only do genes help us to better take advantage of our environment and also affect the learning environment for others around us, I strongly suspect that some genes would also help us to work harder.  The idea that everyone is born with equal interest in everything (and that nurturing/environment is solely responsible for creating specific interests/passions in life) is an idea that cannot be taken seriously.  It is widely acknowledged that our passions and desires are largely what determine how much work we’re willing to put into developing a skill.  In this way, one can say that even the disciplined work we’re willing to put into something has a genetic component to it.  (To read about a discipline paradox related to this, see the last section of Expertise Is Not The Result Of Pure Discipline.)  In fact, genetics affects our personal preferences for things such as hybrid cars, chocolate, science fiction movies or jazz music.  How can these preferences have any genetic basis at all if our very passion in life has no genetic basis?

For those who need more than logical/philosophical arguments to be convinced of this, consider the fact that our willingness to listen to music is biological (keeping in mind that listening to others play good music is a crucial part of good musical development):

This leads us to the question of motivation itself:  does it really come solely from one’s  environment and upbringing, or does nature even have a hand in that too?  Those who deny the role of talent are quick to accept that 10,000 hours of hard work is all that is necessary for complete mastery, but this conclusion results from a statistical fallacy:

  • Biological and Psychological Correlates of Exceptional Performance in Development (2006) – “The main reason why this conclusion is premature lies in the statistical nature of the sample of excellent musicians. Research on musicians deals with a highly select group. If, in addition, this select group is again reduced to the small sample of excellent musicians, results cannot be generalized to a large population. Therefore, the great amount of practice is always combined with an extremely select group, for example, the top level with a ratio of about 1:1,000,000. Deliberate practice of musicians is probably always combined with higher levels of musical talent. If the dropout rate of learners who are completely neglected in research is included, highly selected learners are with a high probability also musically gifted subjects. We do not even know if the great amount of deliberate practice is due to genetic factors (persistence, energy, and endurance) and therefore a function of innate factors or if deliberate practice is the main precondition for high performance independently from genetic factors of deliberate practice.”

In other words, the people who are willing to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve total mastery are probably always helped greatly along the way by their high level of talent.  Even the area of practice efficiency/focus can be influenced by genetics:

Growing up, someone close to me always used to say with great conviction, “Talent is nothing more than interest,” but to me, the opposite implication made more sense:  “Interest is nothing more than talent.”  In other words, interest doesn’t lead to talent;  talent leads to interest.  One small example of this philosophy applied would be a buddy of mine in high school who was gifted when it came to math and physics, especially when abstract proofs were involved.  He wanted to major in psychology, but I kept telling him he should major in mathematics, because it’s difficult to dislike anything we’re good at.  After three semesters of persisting in psychology, he finally called me up one day and said, “Chad, you were right.  It’s difficult to dislike what I’m good at.  I changed my major from psychology to math.”  He ended up getting a masters degree in mathematics, going further in his mathematical studies than I did.  Mozart’s talent didn’t come from his interest or hard work;  his interest and hard work came from his talent.

What’s To Come, What We Do

There is no doubt whatsoever that over the next few decades, scientists will continue to find more and more genes that affect coordination, hearing, speed of rapid muscle twitching, eyesight, more specific understanding of cognition, etc.  Such traits of course affect how quickly one picks up music.  The only real question left is:  what do we do with this information?

There is a great human temptation to dismiss the role of talent genetic basis in the name of personal responsibility.  Won’t all of this just give people an excuse to fail?  Will it cause demotivation?  I have to admit that even I have a hard time being happy about the idea that genetics and its applications to neuroscience are giving criminals more excuses to get away with crime every day.  Even so, if the exploding science of genetics is sound enough for our legal system to accept, it obviously deserves our acceptance too.  We cannot allow our natural emotional response to obscure the scientific and professional virtue of truth.  All truth is inherently good, and whether this knowledge helps or harms us ultimately depends on how emotionally intelligent we are.  Consider The Deaf Gene from a blog titled A Deaf Mom Shares Her World.  After Karen discovered her deafness had genetic basis, it gave her a different perspective on herself:  “Even though I know and try to tell people that we all carry gene mutations–they don’t define us.  Yet, suddenly you’ve learned something fundamental about yourself that you didn’t know before.”

But even if we don’t choose to ask the question, “How much talent do I have?”, that’s not what this is about anyway.  We can still acknowledge the general truth of talent’s genetic basis without concerning ourselves with exactly how much talent each of us has.  Acknowledging this general truth is all my blog’s nature vs. nurture articles aim to do.  The vast majority of musicians are in it for the journey, not the destination, and while a teacher will find it pedagogically useful to be aware of each student’s talents and weaknesses, outward communication about this talent to the student is unnecessary for a fulfilling musical journey.

More importantly, whether various people on each side of the nature vs. nurture debate agree, the debate is over in scientific terms.  Exhaustive evidence has already been collected showing that both nature and nurture play crucial roles in how quickly we acquire new musical skills as well as in determining our upper limit to mastery of a skill (e.g. those with severe mental retardation will never win the Van Cliburn Competition).  Science has moved beyond this debate and is now deeply involved in exploration of what specific genes are tied to various traits we have that affect our learning.

The world of education has also moved beyond this debate for an equally valid reason. Regardless of how much research an educator has done on this subject, decades of experience teaching a huge variety of children makes it impossible to hold on to well-intentioned but naive beliefs that talent does not exist or that it makes only a negligible difference in the learning process.  Schools such as the Davidson Academy would have to be gravely mistaken in their entire philosophy if talent/giftedness had little or no genetic basis.  Teachers who do not embrace this truth would only be held back as educators.  Progress in pedagogy (the science of teaching) will be held up when it is based on false beliefs of any kind.

(c) 2011 Cerebroom

To see an infographic made by Mollie Desouza and others for which this article is a significant source, click here.

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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6 responses to The Genetic Basis of Talent

  1. Pingback: Cerebroom – The Reality of Music and Creativity

  2. Pingback: Nature or nurture? | Stephen Street

  3. Ju

    Nice article. I believe that most of talent is genetically inherited. I know that my keen sense of rhythm and pitch was inherited from my Dad, my musicality’s been apparent since I’ve been a kid, and I love listening to music and playing guitar.

    My brother, on the other hand, isn’t that musical. And mom’s not super musical either. My brother and I were both raised in the same household and had the same exposure to music. So, obviously environment wasn’t the primary factor determining musicality, or else both of us would have been equally musical.

    I don’t get why people are so resistant to admitting that genes affect personality and behavioral predispositions. Genes make us who we are. Sure, upbringing and environment are important. But I think that the tendencies that drive each individual on a daily basis, like musicality, extroversion, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence, and more, are driven primarily by our inborn genes.

  4. Pingback: Cerebroom – Talent’s Role In Artistry

  5. Tara

    Great article. My husband and I are so amazed with our son and Grandson. Each have a natural ability to play music by ear on any instrument. ( with no formal training) Our other children and Grandchildren have no interest or aptitude. The thing that plagues my mind so much is the fact that my husband is obsessed with music, has a great ear, can sing but cannot play an instrument.He is “eaten up” with music, listens to it all of the time, talks about it constantly, watches music documentaries frequently. He is a highly intelligent man. I am wondering if he has musical ability but it’s not complete perhaps. He is uncoordinated in certain ways. He is able to direct our Grandson and his band successfully. Is he possibly missing one or 2 parts of the equation?? He has been obsessed with music from a young age and is very sensitive to it. His emotions are accessed very easily and intensely through music. He is emotionally distant away from music. I think he is on the spectrum of Autism. Our Grandson is seemingly on the spectrum also but more extreme. He rarely speaks but does with eloquence when he does.

    • What instrument did your husband try to learn, for how many years, and at what age? And how reputable was his teacher? Sometimes people conclude they can’t play instruments prematurely (before giving it enough time). Sometimes people don’t have a good teacher, dooming them to inevitable frustration when they reach certain levels of difficulty. Or, yes, sometimes I’ve noticed people who, for various reasons, progress at about half, one-fifth, or even one-tenth the rate of other students (or some people progress at a normal rate but then approach a ceiling sooner than others). Sometimes it’s physical tension, sometimes it’s slow cognition, sometimes anxiety, sometimes physical clutziness, sometimes attitude. Every student has a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses. But anyway, it’s important to know how old your husband was when he studied his instrument, how long he studied, how old he was, and what kind of teacher he had.

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