10,000 Hours in the Woodshed

A while ago I read a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music. The author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuro-scientist. Despite the unfortunate title, the book is a serious exploration of the connections between music (from both a listening and playing perspective) and the brain.

The chapter that most interests me discusses the venerable talent vs. hard work dichotomy. When it comes to developing true expertise as a musician, is it innate, genetic predisposition that matters most? Or is it what Artur Rubinstein referred to as “sitting power?”

The strongest evidence for the talent position is that some people simply acquire musical skills more rapidly than others. The evidence against that talent account – or rather, in favor of the view that practice makes perfect – comes from research on how much training the experts or high achievement people actually do. …experts in music require lengthy periods of instruction and practice in order to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel. In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who weren’t judged as good. (p. 196)

The emerging conclusion is that experts in many fields (sports, literature, composition, performance of every kind) need about 10,000 hours of practice time to achieve world-class levels of proficiency. 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 3 hours a day, seven days a week, for a period of 10 years. These studies do not address the differences in the efficacy of practicing for different people (which is known to vary widely). But when we’re discussing performers on the level of Michael Jordan or Philip Roth or Yo Yo Ma, there apparently have not been cases where truly world class expertise was developed in less time.

According to Levitin, who runs the intriguing sounding Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, this 10,000 hour theory is consistent with what science knows about how the brain learns. The genetic components for musical expertise are also crucial. Such things as physical size may determine that one is more suited for the double bass instead of the piccolo, for instance. Other relevant genetically linked physical traits include manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and memory. Determination, self-confidence and patience are certainly requirements for becoming a highly skilled musician; those traits are inherent as well.
Levitin has a broad range of musical taste and knowledge, which helps make the book approachable, whether you’re a baroque purist, a mainstream jazz aficionado or a Joni Mitchell fan. For the scientifically savvy there’s also a certain amount of detail regarding areas of the brain that are engaged when we listen to or perform music.

Finally, Levitin writes with passion about the emotional content of musical performance. He notes that “so much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of the fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion.”(p. 208) Since we go to music (as well as other forms of art) to be moved emotionally, it seems that being an expert musician ought to include the performer’s ability (or lack thereof) to communicate with listeners in a meaningful way. Quantifying these skills is, alas, no easy task. But Levitin and his colleagues around the world are focusing some of their attention on these more mysterious matters. It may be just a matter of time before science is able to pinpoint the areas of the brain responsible for musical expression, sensitivity and communicative ability.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the woodshed. At this point I think I’ve got about 7,529 hours to go.

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