The book

The author

  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

    More info here.

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« "Welcome to Hollywood" | Main | Best intentions and slippery questions »

January 25, 2007


Ellen D.

My daughter took piano lessons weekly for about 7 years, and practiced and performed diligently and probably was at least above average in her results. Her younger brother, however, took a few months' worth of lessons from the same teacher but had no interest in piano or learning to play any instrument. In his early teen years, he went thru the gotta-have-a-guitar phase, but with short-lived interest. Our daughter played piano until she went away to college but has played very little since.

HOWEVER, our son, now 22, developed a sudden interest (his words) in music at age 20, while away at college, and in the two years since has become not only an accomplished pianist (self taught) but has written several compositions, including a ballet which is currently being developed into a production by the music dept. at his university (which he has never been a student of -- in fact he will graduate next may with a BA in English -- yet apparently his work is good enough to be considered by the head of the school of music).

My question is, how often do these late- and/or sudden-onset major talent surges take place, and where do they come from??? Neither myself nor my husband is musical at all, though I have a brother who is a professional jazz/rock/latin guitarist (his ONLY profession), and my mother played piano for pleasure, having had lessons as a child. My musician brother, who generally thinks pretty highly of his own ability, confides in me that he has never seen anything like what has taken place with my son, and actually said it 'scared him a bit."

Well, that's the gist of it I suppose. Any comments???

Bill Hastings

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts like those of well documented genius; Tony Granims in Florida. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought - before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others."


If I'm not interfering, I'd like to share my view on the matter of inborn capacities concerning music. First of all, are we talking about "being a better musician" or simply being more inclined to musical activity? The first one isn't something that can be put under the scientific microscope because, obviously, no one can decide which is "best" in music. Some are astounded by J. Petrucci and Dream Theater because of their technical skills, while others are simply not touched by the ability to "play it fast" and prefer the Bob Dylan type; emotion over technique. Now, "talented" to me, means being more able to grasp musical hints than others, to have an inner capacity -a tendency towards music. There are, without any doubt, people who are more capable in certain areas than others who have the same kind of training; for example, drawing. No scientist can deny the fact that some people have IT, that, up to a certain point, they're more skillfull than others who practice their hands off. For example, my brother and I had the same upbringing: our mother is a singer and we both had contact with music before we were born. However I showed an inclination to music while my brother did not. I composed my first melody on the piano at age 7, without even being taught basic theory of music or harmony. There is such a thing as a "musical ear"; some have it, some don't. Of course someone who doesn't can train it very systematically and become a great musician. But one can also be born with it, with an innate talent -an innate musical ability. With enough training, a non-talented musician CAN become as good as Beethoven was at age 3; but that's not the point. Nurture has its role, but so does nature.

Bob Calder

Way back at the top of the page, you mention infants. I wonder if recent research proposing computation based acquisition of language is related to the acquisition of musical ability as well.
An outstandingly complex computational effort despite the aid given by mothers in stressing or stretching syllables.

William Calvin and company proposed that language might be an ability conferred by the need to compute complex trajectories, for instance throwing a spear or rock at prey. Frankly I can't think of any of his single publications because there are so many of them.
If you haven't discovered him, you will have a totally great time.

The computational power of the human brain is awesome. Calling the brain "The Genius in All of US" wouldn't be a misstatement.

Ray Cheng

Sorry, in my last post I meant triplets in the left hand, and sixteenth notes in the right hand.

- Anyway -

Here's a critical response to the "clap happy Hollywood piffle" theory of expertise from a self-described brain scientist:
I haven't contacted the blogger myself to establish his/her credentials, but the content seems legitimate and authoritative. It expresses my position far better than I can, even when sober.

Ray Cheng

"The point that I think shines through in all this research is that we need to sweep aside this old notion that most people simply don't have IT." I cannot disagree more. What shines through all this research is that some researchers have ideological blinders on. They have such an emotional investment in the feel-good notion that talent-doesn't-matter-it's-all-how-hard-you-work, that they're not asking the right questions or asking them honestly. For example, the way they dismiss the evidence from prodigies and savants is so glib and superficial as to be irresponsible. Their study concluding that the "best practice more" ignores the equally plausible interpretation that supports the talent concept, rather than refutes it (i.e., the most talented practice more because they can see and enjoy the benefits of it). They tell us (and I'm simplifying, of course) that anybody can be expert at anything, as long as they work hard enough. Then they hedge by saying that, well, only those who are smart enough to get a college degree. Then they hedge again, saying that it is only those who have sufficient motivation -- which can be innate! but of course talent itself could never be. I myself was once rather captivated by these ideas, so counter-intuitive, creating such a hopeful and exciting outlook. But digging deeper through the evidence for both sides, I have come to the conclusion that the anti-talent crowd is just plain mistaken. They deserve credit for showing that it takes about ten years to of deliberate practice to achieve expert level performance; they deserve credit for enunciating the difference between deliberate practice and work or leisure. But they have not begun to show that talent doesn't exist. Meanwhile, evidence for talent abounds.

Want some personal stories? I know a fellow who, at the age of 31, decided that he would take up piano. Within six months, he had taught himself to play the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu in C# minor, Op.66 never having had lessons before. He didn't play it like Rubinstein, but he hit all the right notes, and in the right order, and at the right speed. And this piece is prodigiously difficult: the left hand does sixteenth notes, while the right hand threads in triplets, all at breakneck speed. Think anybody could do that? I'm certain he practiced like a madman, but dare you to suggest he doesn't have "IT"?

I once went to the shooting range with a bunch of friends. The ringleader had just acquired a new pistol, and wanted to share the joy of breaking it in. One individual, having never fired any kind of gun before, proceeded to score 100 consecutive bullseyes from 30 feet. This is not remarkable among experienced shooters, but most guys starting out have trouble hitting the paper target at all.

As a upperclass math major in college, I used to volunteer as a tutor in "help sessions" open to all undergraduates. One of my colleagues, Mark P., who was remarkable in so many ways, astounded us with the following feat. A student approached us, asking for help with a question from MATH 361. Well, neither of us had had that course. Wait, said Mark. He picked up the textbook, did a quick speed-read, then explained the answer as though he had taught the subject for 20 years. (He's no phony: he routinely took 25+ credit hours a semester, graduated in 2.5 years with a 4.0 GPA, earned his Ph.D., and went on to make big bucks in the IT industry.)

Still don't believe in talent?


I also think that the notions of musicianship put forward here only paint part of the picture of what a great musician is. You might be predisposed to rhythm and pitch but anyone who has a good imagination can make up for that. Have you heard of a guy named Bob Dylan. Who would you rather listen to him or Joe Satriani? Satriani is a better musician on some level but I believe that a great musician is a great thinker who happens to be a musician.

Mozart was not great because he could do things at age three. He was great because he had great ideas.


I guess you didn't comment on my Todd and Jesse piece because you did not know what my point was. I was trying to say that identification or self definition plays a huge role in acheivement. Steve Sailer doesn't see himself as a musician, so he isn't.


Hi David,

I'm finding this blog fascinating so far...

To put myself out as an example/counter-example, I play in a band which has quite a few members all playing different instruments. What is interesting about most of our band is that we almost never practice. Surprisingly, the members of our band who do not practice regularly tend to be better musicians than those who do. How do you explain this situation if there isn't some genetic difference or innate talent involved?

Was it because some of us listened to more Mozart while fetuses? If there is a difference in our upbringings is that because our parents had musical or non-musical genes? How do you differentiate between those two cases? Adopted Children? Twins separated at birth?

Ray Cheng

Here's another work by Lykken that might be of interest: Lykken, David, "The Genetics of Genius" A. Steptoe (Ed.), Genius and the Mind: Studies of Creativity and Temperament in the Historical Record, Copyright Oxford University Press.

Ray Cheng

(1) "So, yes, [Mozart was] probably born with a little something special -- but a trifle compared to the intensity that followed." Really? Then why aren't there geniuses of his calibre on every street corner?

(2) Talent drives the motivation to practice. A lot of folks have got that backwards.

David Shenk

David W: Ready for a Woody Allen/Marshall McLuhan moment? I just sent your question to Diana Deutsch, and here is her response:

"In our published study, we excluded speakers of Chinese language from our Eastman group, in order that this group would be comprised only of intonation language speakers. The data from this excluded Chinese group showed a very high prevalence of perfect pitch, and would have fit in perfectly with that of the group from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing; however it was anomalous when compared with that of the intonation language speakers at Eastman. Although the ‘Eastman Chinese speakers’ were small in number, the striking difference between them and the ‘Eastman intonation language speakers’ showed convincingly, I believe, that entrance requirements to the Central Conservatory couldn’t account for the difference that we found. I am, however, engaged in a new study at a prestigious American music school which looks into the matter further."

Ray Cheng

Thank you for your kind welcome. Having read your last post, I see that perhaps we do not differ so much in our positions. To be clear, I do believe there is such thing as talent, that it is necessary for elite performance, and that enormously hard work is necessary to bring it to fore. My belief that science has left the anti-talent crowd behind comes from the work of Lykken, Bouchard, Pinker, among others. I have cited a Lykken work (he is responsible for the "set-point" theory of happiness, BTW) elsewhere in your blog, which expresses his objection to some of Ericsson's work. Bouchard was also one of the pioneers of twin studies, and went a long way toward establishing that (very roughly) 50% of the variability of an enormous set of human traits is heritable. The a priori position, then should be that we all bring hugely varying gifts to the table. The Pinker work to start with is his book "The Blank Slate." He argues that the human mind isn't one, and explores the social consequences. Elsewhere I have read that "VO2max" (something about aerobic fitness) is 50% heritable, and that the response to aerobic training is also about 50% heritable. I am sorry that I did not keep the source information, since the article was about sports rather than intelligence. Anyway, the point is that (as we perhaps have suspected all along) we are dealt widely different hands when it comes to fitness. It's not just a matter of motivation of training or self-image.
You can expect me to have an open mind. But I'd rather have the facts. (Hey, that's quotable, ain't it?)

David Wisnewski

I think it's worth pointing out that in the D. Deutsch, 2004 study you referenced, the tonal speakers were chosen from a prestigious musical conservatory. Could this possibly have already pre-selected many perfect-pitch individuals? Why did they not randomly chosen Mandarin-speakers from a regular school as they did for the atonal speakers?

David Shenk

Hi Timothy: I went to your site - thanks for the link. I will be specifically responding to Murray pretty soon.

I'm glad to learn about Jay Greenberg, and I will take a closer look. But I don't know that even very young success like his automatically proves that he was born with anything in particular. If you tell me that his family wasn't particularly musical and he lived an entirely normal life until waking up one day at age 14 and writing a mature symphony -- that will make me surrender this point immediately.

If you look closely at Mozart's life (and I'll do this in a post at some point), it's quite extraordinary how his career makes perfectly logical sense: very early exposure to the highest levels of music and training, an aggressive father teacher who had already practiced and improved his teaching skills with an older daughter, great rewards for success very early on, oodles of practice, and a very steady improvement in his composition over many years time. So, yes, he and Greenberg were probably born with a little something special -- but a trifle compared to the intensity that followed.

David Shenk


Welcome. You'll see from my more recent two posts that you and I don't share the same approach. But I'll be open to yours, and I hope you'll be open to mine.

I do agree that some of the expert-performance researchers have made statements that go a little far. But I don't agree that their science is thin or "trendy." I think they're coming up with important pieces of the puzzle, which need to be fit into what we're learning about genetics.

I'd love to see the evidence behind your statement, "science...has affirmed the folk belief that there is such thing as talent in all fields of human endeavor." That doesn't gibe with what I've yet seen.

Please stay with us and offer up what you've got.

David Shenk

Dear Steve Sailer:

Happy-clappy piffle and tosh are fun words to use, but I hope if you keep reading this blog you'll come to it with more open-mindedness.

I don't know anything about your circumstances, but if you are a grown adult with absolutely no sense of rhythm or intonation, you obviously do face a very steep climb if you desire to be musical. I guarantee you that it's dramatically steeper if you think you can't do it.

But to assert that half of all Americans have little hope of being musical because they weren't born with the vocal equivalent of extraordinary height doesn't gibe with any facts or experience I know. In fact, one of the very nice things about musicality is that there are so many different ways to be musical using the physical traits you do have.

Years ago, I got to interview Elvis Costello about his interest in the Grateful Dead. Here's part of what he said when we came to talking about Jerry Garcia's voice:

"Some of my favorite singers have no power to speak of in their voices. Maybe that's what make them sound human. Randy Newman doesn't have a loud voice or much range, but his voice rings true. Some people who bellow don't communicate anything to me at all. There are people who have enormously powerful voices, like Stevie Wonder, who is so flexible, or Little Richard, whose voice is like a blowtorch -- it sears your ears off. Then there are people with beautiful, mellifluous voices like Tim Hardin. Garcia's is right there between the two. You couldn't say it's mellifluous, and neither is it commanding. He can sound very tragic, with an ache, which I think is just as valuable as being able to hit any note. Particularly in American singing, there are a lot of people who do so much with very meager resources, examined purely from the compass of range and tone. And yet they turn their voices into the most moving thing you can imagine."

John Russell

This is a fantastic article and I enjoyed reading it, but please fix the links to the "Talent proves of no avail in the absence of thousands of hours of practice..." google books articles. When I click on them I am brought to the google books homepage with no search information. This is because for some reason the ampersands in the url are being encoded as instead of being left as just '&'. This breaking the url. Thanks for all the great links.


Nature vs. nurture in music is very tricky. There's no doubt that training is crucial. "The way to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!" No one is born knowing how to play the cello. World-class string players start at age 3 or 4 on mockup instruments; by high school they are playing 4-8 hours per day and this expands to 10+ hours in college - tendonitis is a constant and career-ending risk. Also, think of Flea, the bassist from Red Hot Chili Peppers, practicing until the calluses came off his hands.

Yet from my own experience, it seems that practice can take one only so far. Everyone's ability would appear to have a mathematical limit, which one approaches asymptotically. Some people are apparently born with "IT." Take a look at Jay Greenberg for an extreme example of this: Another example would be Dennis Brain, the leading horn player in Britain at 24 and one of the greatest horn players of the twentieth century. According to Wikipedia, Stokowski offered him a job with the Philadelphia Symphony when he was 21, and had been playing the horn for only 6 years.

Also, I posted more generally about this blog, but I'm having trouble with trackback, so I take the liberty of adding the link here:

Ray Cheng

Dear Mr. Shenk,
I wandered into your blog while looking for ammunition against the "anti-talent" faction of psychologists. Since you are writing a book that touches upon this subject, it is my dear wish that your book will help set this matter straight, at least with the interested public. First, let me point to you the work of the late David Lykken, who made "twin studies" a household term. Perhaps a good place to start (if you haven't already) is the popular article
Note that in that article the term "Radical Environmentalism" is not about hugging trees and spotted owls, but rather believing in nurture to the exclusion of nature. A rather trendy version of this idea holds that elite performance is the result of deliberate practice, denying or minimizing the role of heritable factors ("talent"). The maverick scientists who perpetrate this notion seem to be held hostage to a feel-good utopian vision in which all people are given equal gifts at birth, and subsequent achievement is proportional to effort. Well, science has advanced beyond that (and has for some time), and it has affirmed the folk belief that there is such thing as talent in all fields of human endeavor. The concept of talent is strongly embedded in our daily intuitions, for the good reason that the concept is entirely valid.

But what about Tiger Woods? And the Polgar sisters? Let me state the obvious. For every genius seemingly created out of nurture, there are tens of thousands of ordinary kids with similarly zealous parents who later turn out to be...ordinary. If Laszlo Polgar or Earl Woods had met with disappointment in their early efforts to inspire their kids, there simply wouldn't have been a story to tell. Put differently, they got lucky: their children had the genes to match their parents' aspirations. Sure, deliberate practice has a role--nobody was ever denying that--but to get to elite levels there has to talent as well.

I wish you success in writing in your book, and I look forward its publication. The evidence shows that you are a talented writer.

Steve Sailer

To somebody like me, who can't carry a tune, this sounds like the kind of happy-clappy piffle that Hollywood is always shoving down our throats about how anyone can become a star if they only truly believe in their dreams.

Sure, for the seven million Americans who are at least a couple of standard deviations above the mean in musical ability, or even the 50 million who are at least one standard deviation above average, other qualities matter more than innate talent. But for, say, the 150 million Americans on the left half of the musical ability bell curve, this is all tosh, as silly as saying that height doesn't much matter in making the NBA.

David Shenk

Very happy to have you along, pdf. I'd love to pursue this with you, if you're willing. Can you speak to the age of students you're talking about? I'm willing to accept your notion of the "natural" variabilty in musical ears if that's where the evidence takes us, but I want to first be sure that we're not just talking about kids who've gotten a head start on others through their family experience. My sense -- I admit I have not seen the evidence to back this up yet; I will look -- is that kids start developing there ears at at different ages and at wildly different paces depending on how much music they have around them.

Whatever the case, it doesn't invalidate your point about how teachers need to deal with these differing abilities.

Assuming that you are right about the differences in natural ear -- and I'm sure that there is some innate variability -- how do you respond to that as a teacher and musician? In your experience (and instinct), do the people on the mid to lower end of the ear variability spectrum very rarely turn out to be promising or interesting musicians? Or does success -- however you measure it -- more closely track with desire and ambition?


To expand, this is among students with equal ability to perform straight pieces (both technical ability and musical interpretation).


I'm a highly trained pianist, and in my experience, some students naturally pick up the ability to pick out harmonies and chord progression (i.e. improvise) and some don't, even with the same training. I think there is a substantial variability in the ease with which students develop their ear. *Not* recognizing this is very harmful, as it leads some teachers to treat students without a natural talent for some aspect of musicianship as if the problem were some emotional thing, instead of a simple lack of training.


OK I gotta weigh in on this one.

When I was a kid Todd and Jesse could do all academic things better than me (I was a better athlete, they were better with girls). There was this machine in the resource room at PS 101 which would scroll across sentences at whatever speed you set it to. They could comprehend it all when it was turned to blindingly fast. I needed like fifteen minutes for each word and longer if the word had more than one syllable. They never played guitar and I did, though. So it was my own thing. It was also a tool for being better with the girls (that end of it never really worked out but it was a huge part of the early motivation.)

I never really "practiced". I would drink a huge glass of powdered iced tea, eat a box of Ritz crackers, watch TV, and play songs out of my easy guitar Beatles book. When I got teachers I mostly just kept doing what I had been doing and ignored all their exercises. The best teacher I had, Phil Bowditch, wrote out "Blackbird" and "Sugaree" and never gave a small rodents derriere whether whether I worked on it. When the next lesson came he'd tell me stories like the one about the drunk native Americans at that one gig, then pick out another handwritten cheat sheet and we'd play it and I'd tuck it away and maybe a few monthe later I'd look at it again. The guy could really play and sing, though, and he liked what I liked.

So, I was not the smartest kid and I was not the hardest working kid, but I identified with music. I wore the Zep Jersey, I grew my hair long. When New Wave happenned I cut my hair short. People play music, they don't work it (I use that line on my students all the time). I just was a guitarist and a singer. People thought my singing sucked and that I should find a chick to do it. I kind of agreed, but the warbles kept coming out.


David this has become my favorite website. So fun. Please tell me when I become too annoying. I like the Galton part, very convincing. Two thoughts:
1. Look up 'Williams syndrome'. One of its cardinal features is patients' frequent capacity for perfect pitch. It's a genetic disorder.
2. A new idea - for me - instead of looking for evidence of extreme talent at the high end of the practice range, look for it at the very low end. Do differences in ability early in life, prior to practice effects but documented by teachers, predict ability later in life? EG the Chinese system of identifying actors under Mao or atheletes. They picked em young, trained them all, and then sent them to Beijing Opera or the Olympics or what have you. Is there any evidence that within this select group rankings remained constant despite practice effects?

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