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10,000 hours of practice leads to mastery? That’s not what our genes say.

| August 5, 2014

I like to tell myself I could become a master fencer. Sure, I’d have to devote a lot of time (10,000 hours or so, if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed) and wouldn’t have the benefit of a training montage, but with enough practice and a rakish mustache …

Right. Some of you are rolling your eyes. You know from personal experience that talent plays some essential role in mastery. Perhaps you, at the mercy of a tiger mom, put a thousand hours into violin practice and still had trouble playing a note. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones, who picked up a flute and flew past your peers with a minimum of blood, sweat and tears. A new study vindicates these observations by highlighting the importance of genetics — roughly analogous to “talent” for our purposes — in determining both whether people will practice music and whether they’ll benefit from practice.

The Economist has a rundown of the study, conducted by Miriam Mosing of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden:

Dr Mosing drew her conclusion in a time-honoured way—by studying twins. She and her colleagues surveyed 1,211 pairs of identical twins (who share all their genes) and 1,358 pairs of fraternal twins (who share half) born between 1959 and 1985. They asked each participant whether he or she played a musical instrument or actively engaged in singing. Those who did were asked to estimate how many hours a week they had practised at different ages. From this Dr Mosing was able to calculate a score for each individual’s lifetime practice. Anyone who did not play an instrument or sing got a score of zero.

She then tested the twins on musical ability using three proxy tests associated with expertise in music: ability to distinguish tones, melodies and rhythm. The conclusions are a bit startling. Via Scientific American’s Bret Stetka (emphasis mine):

[Mosing and colleagues] reported that the propensity to practice was between 40 percent and 70 percent heritable and that there was no difference in musical ability between twins with varying amounts of cumulative practice. “Music practice,” they conclude, “may not causally influence musical ability and … genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice.”

That discovery alone is enough to shake the foundations of the practice-perfect assumption. In one case, the difference in practice between twins was more than 20,000 hours — and still there was no measurable difference in their performance on the proxy tests.

Mosing’s study comes on the heels of a similar one published about a month ago by Michigan State University psychology professor David Z. Hambrick and his colleague Elliot Tucker-Drob, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Stetka at Scientific American has the context:

[Hambrick and Tucker-Drob] set out to investigate the genetic influences on musical accomplishment using data from a study of 850 same-sex twin pairs from the 1960s. Participants where originally queried on their musical successes and how often they practiced, both of which Hambrick found to have a genetic component. One quarter of the genetic influence on musical accomplishment appears related to the act of practicing itself. Certain genes and genotypes presumably confer qualities that drive some kids to hole up in their basement and, at the expense of their family’s sanity, perfect that drum fill — traits like musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation, that in turn could draw reinforcement from parents and teachers, leading to even more desire to practice. Hambrick’s findings don’t reveal what accounts for the remaining majority of genetic influence on musical accomplishment, though he assumes it’s innate differences in faculties that would logically contribute to musical ability, such as sound processing and motor coordination.

But neither Mosing nor Hambrick are out to condemn practice. As Mosing’s team writes: Music practice has been shown to induce changes in the brain, and her study doesn’t contradict this. Rather, the changes detected “predominantly reflect the development of such specific skills” as hitting piano keys in a certain order, finger placement, or learning to read a score. In other words, they don’t reflect the development of a fundamental “talent” for music — that remains the domain of genes — but of the specialized skills necessary to play any instrument.

Really, these new studies don’t say anything that doesn’t conform to a long history of more commonsense understandings of talent, practice and expertise. What they challenge is the perhaps too-appealing notion that practice — and practice alone — is enough to produce mastery.

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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