Suzuki, nature, nurture and the origins of ability

The question of nature vs. nurture is one of the most perplexing questions in child development. Before Suzuki, talent development consisted of identifying and growing naturally talented children. The prevailing theory held that musical ability is chiefly inherited and can only be improved on through rigorous practice.

Suzuki, of course held the opposite view. He painstakingly worked with very young children teaching them to play the violin through a method both systematic and nurturing. The results were impressive and launched a worldwide movement in music education. When K. Anders Ericsson published his landmark study on the effects of deliberate practice decades after Suzuki, he seemed to provide rigorous scientific support for environmental influence on the development of musical ability. Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea by referring to the effect of 10,000 hours of practice.

But science is never so simple. What if all of this is wrong? Or at least partly wrong?

Musical ability, practice and genetics

Two important studies cast doubt on the view of talent as simply the product of practice, albeit lots and lots of deliberate practice.

The first study by Miriam Mosing and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studied the effect of genetics and practice on musical ability. The did this by looking for differences between fraternal twins and identical twins. Presumably both types of twins have similar environmental exposures during childhood; so any differences between fraternal and identical twins are due to genetics (since identical twins have identical genetic makeup whereas fraternal twins have genetic makeup no different than any other sibling pair.) Importantly, they tested each of these 10,500 twins[1] for musical aptitude using a variety of standard tests - pitch discrimination, rhythm, melody. Each participant was asked to estimate their childhood musical practice time. These researchers found that the majority of differences in musical ability were due to genetics. Furthermore, when looking only at identical twins, differences in the amount of practice did not result in any measurable differences in musical ability.

The second study by David Hambrick and Elliot Tucker-Drob looked for similar effects but in a different way. They studied participants in the National Merit Twin Sample, asking them to estimate their musical practice and to score their level of musical accomplishment. Through mathematical modeling, the researchers were able to discern a significant genetic influence on musical ability. However, while some of this effect appears to be related to the effects of genetics on the propensity to practice, most of the effect seemed to be mediated in other ways. Finally, they did find evidence of an interaction between genes and environment.

In summary:

  1. Practically any child can learn to play a musical instrument.
  2. All children can learn and develop as whole people through studying music.
  3. Measurable musical ability is the result of an interplay between genes and the environment.
  4. Practice is essential but may not account for as much ability development as Suzuki hypothesized.

Does this matter?

Much of the power of Suzuki’s method is revealed in the way he refers to his goals: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” His intent was to help children become peacemakers and people of integrity. Sure some may become musicians along the way, but for Suzuki, music was the path, not the destination.

Yet, Suzuki clearly believed that all children could become fine players given enough practice and nurturing. Here, science and aspiration come into conflict. It seems indisputable that nearly all children can make music. And even more importantly, with a nod to Suzuki’s hopes, all children can learn something about being good people in the world through the process of studying music.

What harm, then, is there in beginning with the fundamental assumption that musical ability is solely a function of more practice?

The harm of this seemingly egalitarian stance is that when children don’t meet their goals, the explanation is solely that they haven’t prepared enough. But there’s an intellectual dishonesty in making students bear all of the responsibility for differences in rates of progress. Of course, kids should practice. I’m convinced that there are lessons about being a good, responsible, whole person, that come from practice. But we should be cautious about making inferences about practice from observable differences in playing ability.

Perhaps “Nature or nurture?” is the wrong question to ask. Better yet, “Is my child developing transferrable life skills by studying music?” “Does my child have a love of music?” If the answer to those questions is “yes”, then what more can we ask? Follow the path and see where it leads.

References

  • Hambrick, D. Z., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2014). The genetics of music accomplishment: Evidence for gene–environment correlation and interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 22(1), 112-120. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-014-0671-9 Link
  • Practice Does Not Make Perfect: No Causal Effect of Music Practice on Music Ability. Miriam A. Mosing, Guy Madison, Nancy L. Pedersen, Ralf Kuja-Halkola and Fredrik Ullén Psychological Science 2014 25: 1795 originally published online 30 July 2014 DOI: 10.1177/0956797614541990 Link
  • Practice may not make perfect. (2014, July 05). Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21606259-musical-ability-dna-practice-may-not-make-perfect Link - an easy-to-read synopsis of Miriam Mosing’s twin study.

  1. This is a very large study. What's notable about it, though, is not only the size of the study but the fact that the investigators directly measured musical ability. Other studies have asked participants solely to rate their own abilities.