Psychology of Music Ability

Music abilityWhy is it that some of us are better at music than others? Is music ability genetically pre-determined? Well, it appears the answer to that question is yes!

Perhaps you know this family: The mother teaches piano, the daughter is the best singer in her high school chorus, and the son’s band won Battle Of The Bands last week.

It appears that this pattern isn’t random. A recent study out of Finland has found evidence that musical talent is a genetically inherited trait.

Who Are They?

Liisa T. Ukkola, Päivi Onkamo, Pirre Raijas, Kai Karma and Irma Järvelä of the University of Helsinki in Helsinki, Finland.

What They Did

Ukkola and her team found 343 Finnish individuals from 19 families who had professional or amateur musicians in their families. The individuals were tested on three separate standardized musical aptitude tests. The first tests the ability of an individual to recognize the structure of a musical piece. The second tests the ability for an individual to accurately recognize variations in pitch. The third tests an individuals ability to maintain consistent timing.

Together, these three tests comprise the basic aspects of a musical piece: structure, time and pitch. A fourth test of creativity required the individual to compose or improvise a piece of music. Their piece was then judged by many people through a web-based application.

What They Found

Ukkola and her team found that there was statistically significant correlations within family and how the individuals scored. More creative individuals tended to have more creative siblings.

Most importantly though, they found that music ability was directly related to a specific gene that is, ‘associated with social, emotional and behavioral traits, including pair bonding and parenting’. This provides a neurological basis for musical talent.

What This Means

These findings may seem logical on the surface but the implications are somewhat significant in explaining the psychology of music ability. It appears that many of the things that we are good at, in this case music, are directly related to our parents. This likely explains why there are so many Andretti men in racing or why any number of successful father son combination’s in sports exist.

The physical attributes given to us by our family is nothing new. Tall parents tend to breed tall children. Good-looking parents tend to breed good looking children. What makes this study interesting is that it seems feasible that many of the cognitive traits that we possess are also passed on from our family members biologically.

For years there has been a very intense debate about human intelligence and whether or not it is more the product of nature or nurture. The general consensus has been that there is an inherent genetic potential that must be nurtured to come to fruition. These findings do not exactly dismiss this notion, but they certainly confirm that many of our cognitive abilities are genetic in nature.

In short, there is a good chance that no matter how much you play guitar, you may never be as good as Hendrix. But then, Hendrix would never have gotten as good as he was had he never played, so I wouldn’t suggest not trying.