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Musical talent

I have long been fascinated by the subjects of musical talent and musical intelligence. Probably all of us working in the music profession have at some point run into people that we thought to be supremely talented. I suspect that most of us have also come into contact with musicians (performers and teachers alike) whom we deemed as perhaps somewhat misplaced in their chosen career.

Some who have studied the psychology behind talent’s impact on success have arrived at the 10,000-hour rule. The premise is simple: if you put 10,000 hours into an endeavor--be it in sports, the arts, or any other field--success will likely follow. One would think that without true talent, the 10,000-hour benchmark would simply be too daunting an effort to accomplish. However, such assumption might take for granted the notion that perseverance, too, can become the mother of success (perhaps especially if exercised in the face of true adversity.)

Interestingly, an idea opposite to the 10,000-hour rule is lately catching traction. It suggests that those who at a young age dabble in several different disciplines of the same general field have the greatest chance of success once they correctly determine which single area to focus on. Examples of this concept can be found in examining the career trajectories of several of the great sports figures who tried many different disciplines before reaching true greatness in the one for which they are now known. If applied to the field of music performance, this approach could revolutionize the way in which we teach children to play an instrument. Rather than aiming for success by focusing on a single instrument from a very early age (so as to begin work on reaching the 10,000-hour mark as early as possible), parents and teachers would introduce the child to many different instruments before selecting “the one.”

This brings us back to the topic of musical talent. For such talent to stand a true chance at thriving, it should--ideally--be well matched to the instrument that one plays.

Bear with me to consider the following: scientists who study the field of music from the purely technical angle identify four distinct physical attributes of sound. They are: pitch, volume (dynamics), time (meaning duration, or rhythm) and timbre. Every sound or even noise around us can be described through these four elements; in fact, nowadays these four components of sound are easily graphed and analyzed using the sound wave. The effect that the combination of these four sound elements--which we colloquially refer to as music--has on the human brain has been studied by psychologists for decades.

Ideally, most music students should have a strong theoretical and practical grasp of the concepts of pitch, dynamics, rhythm and tone quality. But what is truly interesting is that just as there exist the four physical components of sound, there can also be identified exactly four general types of musical skill. They are: the tonal, the dynamic, the temporal and the qualitative. Can the association here be merely coincidental?

The tonal type of musical skill is prevalent in musicians who focus on melody (that is, phrasing), and harmony (in the sense of the harmonic function of notes). Many instrumentalists should want to fall into this category.

Those individuals with a well-developed sense of dynamic control make wonderful pianists. They happen to be quite different from persons who are primarily gifted in the temporal realm and who in turn focus on rhythm and all its aspects. Those who are gifted with recognizing and controlling the qualitative aspects of sound, meaning musicians who dwell on color and timbre, are different form those skilled in the temporal, and to some extent even the tonal areas.

While some of the above might seem too rigid or theoretical a concept, what's important to note is that rarely does any single musician inherently possess all four types of musical skill. Those who do are the individuals whom we consider to have been born supremely talented. Those prodigies aside, a successful musician is the person who: a) is well matched to their skill type (for instance, a person lacking in the tonal or qualitative skill could not become a truly successful vocalist or violinist, while a person lacking in the temporal skill could make a good vocalist but not a strong timpanist); and b) develops to an adequate level those remaining skills which are lacking.

Approaching the study of music through the prism of the four physical attributes of sound and their corresponding types of musical skill allows the music student to isolate and improve those areas of their performance that need it most. Beyond this (which at times already presents a monumental task), the degree to which one engages in the realm of tonal imagination--that is, the ability to perform in a grasping way--as well as exercising one’s musical intelligence; that is, utilizing theoretical knowledge and practical experience, will largely determine one’s chances at achieving true success in the field of music performance.


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