Is the Genius in Your Genes? Your Comments

The question about musical talent being derived from genetics versus skilled musical talent and other intellectual or physical fields is raising a never ending discussion. What came first? – The inborn ability or the skilled one. – The chicken or the egg?

Stories like those of Mozart in music or Lionel Messi in football can make us confused. The two masters burst into the world, fascinating all the people around them from very early stages of their lives.

Mozart was only three years old when his extraordinary musical ability was recognized. At the age of five he began to write his early compositions, and also played violin and harpsichord. During his life term, he composed more the 600 works, which most of them are famous and distinguished by their musical qualities.

Although Messi is only 24 years old, he is considered one of the best football/soccer players of all times. At the age of four Messi demonstrated an unusual ability to guide the ball. Soon enough he was also acknowledged by his coaches. In the age of twelve he was accepted to Barcelona, one of the most distinguished football teams. Messi’s list of accolades is almost never ending. His future looks very bright.

But these stories are in a way the end of the story. What happened in the beginning?

Do you think that these masters were born geniuses?

One of my colleagues in the Bach (Johan Sebastian Bach) Linked-In group, referred to the Henkjan Honing lecture from Ted Talks in Amsterdam.


Honing explains about inborn musical abilities. He claims that almost all human beings are musical. Starting from an early stage, three month old babies develop special intonation abilities according to their mother tongue language.

In addition to the ability to distinguish different intonation, he mentioned his special research with newborn babies. He discovered that these newborns react physically to syncopations (non-regular rhythmic patterns). Honing acclaimed that the sense of beat is a common denominator to human beings and animals.

Another Bach Linked-In group member also indicated the importance of the fundamental rhythmic senses. She states that the heart beat and breathing are part of basic essence of human beings and the experience of life.

Honing himself conduct another controversial experiment with his audience. In this experiment, the audience was requested to reconstruct a given tune by showing them the video of the song. He picked one volunteer to answer the question. The identification was perfect. The volunteer recognized the tune precisely by pitch and tempo.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find research about perfect pitch in newborn babies. The reason can be technical because they are very young subjects and their reactions are limited. Maybe newborns can’t have perfect pitch ability yet.
I would be glad to have your information about this kind of research that I couldn’t find.

In any case, although the experiment is very interesting and sparks a discussion about the definition of perfect pitch or absolute pitch, (which I promise to discuss deeply in one of my future posts), it has nothing to do with inborn musical abilities. It determines that these qualities are definitely skilled ones.

Searching the subject of inborn versus learned skills led me to an interesting source. In an article written by Hilary Coon and Gregory Carey, the differentiation between the musical skills of twins was tested. The unambiguous results show that although twins have almost similar genetic origin, the environmental influence is much more dominant than their genetic make-up.

If this is the case, then our job as musical educators, parents and leaders is much more significant than we think and admit. In one of my next posts , I will refer to this wide-spread opinion of my colleagues in the music field.

Finally, in the past few weeks, I received a significant amount of responses in reaction to my blog. I read every comment and I am still arranging them it into different topics, which I will discuss in the future. In order to give you credit and quote your comments properly; especially if you are group member or wrote a comment in the blog itself, please indicate your e-mail and professional website with your comments.
If you are not interested in any of your information being published, please write to me specifically.

I want to acknowledge my colleagues and friends that contributed their significant information to this post and my next posts:

Agnes Mauer, Simone Baroni, Mary Anne Finnemore, John Kiberd, Diana Kirkpatrick, Pauli Maher,  Amitavo Roy, Mary Jane Jones, Minnie Villanueva, Karim Elmahmoudi, Shirley KirstenPhilip Shapiro, Sandy Holland, Ruth Brons, R. Leonardo Helton, Cynthia Morro-Hattal. Michael Gold, Opher Brayer, Davie Chamberlain, Dianah Romig Mellin, Amit Shtriker, Michelle, Leon Van Dyke, Lloyd Masel, Hagit Rosmarin, Samer Hatoum, Ron Floisand, James R. Stewart Jr., Kent Cohea.

Others who were quoted in my present post or in my future posts will be quoted without being mentioned , are invited to send me their permission and I will add their details.


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7 thoughts on “Is the Genius in Your Genes? Your Comments

  1. As a composer who gives preconcert lectures to build listening skills in large audiences, I deeply resonate with the idea that we all have innate musical skills that only need attention and focus to bloom. But I find the blanket term “musical talent” so unhelpful. When we teach music, especially music theory, we discover that music requires literally dozens of different skills, far more than the simple chart the wonderful Ted speaker you cite graphs for the brain. Even the most “talented” musicians excel more in some of these skills than others. And all serious musicians spend their entire lives building the skills that do not come as “naturally.” Musical skill, in other words, is a blanket term for very different orientations to sound. I imagine that if these skills could be realistically quantified for people we acknowledge as “musically talented,” we would discover their “talent fingerprints” to differ dramatically. As a composer, I used to be obsessed with the dilemma of writing at the piano or away from it. Beethoven and Stravinsky composed using the piano. Stravinsky felt it was critical to stay in close contact with the actual sound. But many contemporary composers feel the opposite, that the piano becomes a crutch that prevents original creativity, and insist that true “talents” only write away from the instrument. This suggests to me that we are all simply “wired” differently.

    One fascinating thing I have discovered is that in 15 minutes I can teach general audiences to follow a Beethoven symphonic movement with clearer focus and structural understanding than many orchestral musicians (the musicians themselves often tell me so!) It’s not that orchestral musicians don’t have this talent, of course, but that it isn’t strongly brought to their attention during their studies.

    So the importance of “environment” versus “genetics” regarding music education is to teach that musical ability is not a single thing, but an exploration of a multitude of skills. Some come easy and others require enormous work to develop. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses. And most importantly, natural ability in any number of these skills has no meaning without a passionate, inquiring, and creative desire to cultivate and apply them. We all know innately “talented” people who never develop as musicians as well as less “talented” people who grow and eventually develop an important musical voice.

  2. This is very interesting reading. I know I had a love of music from very young and use to sing after I went to bed, but I overheard my brothers asking why. Not much support there. I tried Piano and organ, as my father was a teacher of same, but it is not the best to have a parent teach you. I did better when I went to college and majored in voice. I took up piano and violin for awhile. Then life got in the way and I left for 20 years, returning to finish a degree in ART.I had forgotten everything I knew about music. But I always listened to it when I painted. Eventually life, again drew me back to music, and I took up the viola and played in a string quartet and an orchestra. When I was 57, I realized what I really wanted was to play Classical guitar, and I have been playing that for almost seven years, with a teacher. I still play viola in a small chamber group. I was like a kid in a toy store. When people say I am talented. I don’t really know what that means. I have worked on it and have achieved a small level of success. That is all.

  3. Maya,
    First of all, your blog is really, really great. Congrats!
    Regarding this topic, I always thought – particularly about perfect pitch, but it can be applied to other fields – that it’s both inborn and skilled. Those are both there. This is my instinct, and not research, but my understanding after having met many musicians is that perfect pitch is inborn, but must be developed, otherwise it will never become apparent. There are stories out there about violinists who have perfect pitch for the violin range, but not below it; and I know from myself that while I rarely lose my perfect pitch, if it ever happens it will be listening to a capella singing first thing in the morning, since this is not my instrument – piano (though I’ll probably be ok recognizing violin notes first thing in the morning). So obviously it’s something that was developed. At the same time, some people can’t develop perfect pitch. You could say that they started late, but I am quite sure that I know many musicians with a great,z and early musical training who were never able to develop perfect pitch. My conclusion – there is an inborn basis for perfect pitch, but it must be developed through musical study. The same can be applied to other musical aspects. Just my opinion.
    Good luck with the blog! The articles are very interesting.

  4. Maya,

    I have found your blog to be interesting and thought provoking. Thank you for putting it together. Please excuse my barging in. With your permission, I would like to add a little something to this post.

    Mozart was a prodigy of music, no question about that. In so far as he had quite an innate fondness for music, he was also playful and creative and he had a supportive (maybe too much so for most people) and well educated father, Leopold, who himself was a well known and respected composer, as a teacher. Underscored by these two factors, Mozart was indeed well advanced in his musical knowledge and his skills on the pianoforte and violin than his youthful peers. Environmental variables do play an enormous role in a person’s growth and development, musically in two categories, composition and performance (knowledge/skill). I am unfamiliar with the background of Messi.

    Further, with regard to natural or inborn talent versus learned talent/skill, Dr. Robert Dilts, a co-founder of the study of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, developed a structural model for extracting internal processes from creative geniuses. The term was coined, “human behavioral modeling”, which was the basis used to research how people are creative and how their motivations, strategies, values, beliefs play into ones internal and external capabilities, music or otherwise. His research included Mozart and many other creative people. His work can be read in his book co-written with Todd Epstein is titled “Tools For Dreamers: Strategies of Creativity and the Structure of Innovation”. It is published by Meta Publications out of Capitola, CA, (1991). As I understand his work, once a behavior is “modeled” it can be replicated and installed into anyone willing to work with a practitioner making things like creative genius available to others desiring it. You might find it a very interesting read.

    The thoughts I have about innate ability versus learned is that both are part of the experience of any person and that the internal and external filters through which a person lives their life will be directly found manifested in their outward labor and/or their creative works. So it should not be such a surprise that someone like Mozart was recognized early in his years as a prodigy of music and composition having such a well suited foundation for music. This of course is in no way diminishing the fact of his enormous accomplishments and contributions to music nor my admiration for his superb musical body of work. After all, it was Mozart himself and his innate ability, who put in the time in study, added his creativity and his desire to compose music that he goes down in history as one of the all time greatest composers who ever lived. Something more to think about hey?

  5. I think that musicality and our ability to learn an instrument is deeply spiritual. I believe this spiritual influence, our natural talents and abilities, our ability to learn things, and our creativity are all from one spiritual source – the God of the Bible. I know many might disagree and I do not wish to get into a religious discussion, but to simply pose my own thoughts on what has already been brought up.

    That said, I think that genes, skill, hard work and environment are all part of the equation. Everyone has input from each source which determines their individual output. That’s why I believe anyone can learn to play the violin – but not everyone has the potential to reach the same level. However, that shouldn’t deter anyone from trying. Even those who are naturally gifted need to work hard, and those that seemingly have “no natural ability” actually do possess some. It’s all a balance, it’s not one or the other.

    It is a very complicated and involved subject, but those are my thoughts summed up.

  6. Every person is a product of everything we experience. And every musician, singer, songwriter and producer is as well. Even the most unsuspecting, passing experiences imprint themselves onto our collective understandings. The things we tend to revisit most often become more permanent definers of our own personal style, which is why so many blues/jazz/classical/rock players sound very much like the musicians they listen to.
    I teach my more advanced private students a convenient truth about playing and/or singing freely. You’ve just gotta do it. When you have studied an instrument to the point of being able to successfully manipulate it to respond the way you want it to and your relationship to the music itself is open and connected, then all of those dominant and dormant musical ideas, approaches and understandings accumulated throughout the course of your life come rushing to the forefront of your conscious performances.
    As an instructor what I teach is technique but each person’s interpretation comes from their own personal discoveries and experiences.

  7. Re: Karim’s comment:
    Bach’s music had fallen into relative obscurity by the turn of the 19th century, was studied and deeply respected by Mendelssohn who arranged and conducted a performances in Berlin of Bach’s masterpiece, “The St. Matthew Passion”, resulting in a reevaluation of the composers output. The point is many great composers after Bach failed to recognize his true genius until someone said “hey – we need to take a closer look at this output – this is substantial.”

    Actually, that’s not quite true. The best composers after Bach’s death — Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and others — DID recognise Bach’s genius. The evidence for this is incontrovertible. Bach became, soon after his death, a composers’ composer: professional musicians studied his works (especially his keyboard music) and emulated particular aspects of his creativity (especially counterpoint) in their own work. Mendelssohn did not even discover Bach for himself — his teacher, Zelter, based much of Mendelssohn’s musical education on Bach’s oeuvre.

    Mendelssohn’s breakthrough was in recognising that Bach’s music could appeal to NON-musicians. Thanks to him, music lovers started to hear know the works of a composer who had previously been recognised only by a relatively small professional elite. As I recall, there had been a few public performances of Bach’s music before Mendelssohn, but he was the first to devote an entire performance exclusively to a work by Bach. (His faith in Bach did have its limits: his version of the St Matthew Passion was heavily cut, and included many changes in the remaining portions).

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