Science: Gene Genius?

Are great musicians born talented or is there hope for anyone willing to put in the hours? Hugh Aldersey-Williams investigates
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OF the 60 or so members of the Bach family who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, more than 50 of them were professional musicians of one kind or another. So does this mean that musical talent is in the genes? Or was it simply a habit, in these households echoing with the sound of harpsichords, that each young Bach would acquire musical skill?

It's not just the Bachs - at last year's BBC Proms concerts, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky could be seen conducting his violinist son Sasha. Yan Pascal Tortelier, son of the cellist Paul, conducted other concerts. There were works performed by the brothers Colin and David Matthews. But the problem with the genetic idea is that there is no solid evidence either to prove or disprove it. Detailed genetic studies have been beyond the scope of science, while the psychological research that has been done up until now leaves plenty of room for furious argument.

Essentially, this is the old nature-versus-nurture debate, but with added layers of complexity. Professor John Sloboda of Keele University is internationally known for his work on the psychology of music. He and his colleagues reviewed the arguments on both sides in a paper published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences last June. They "found no evidence of innate attributes operating in the predictable and specific manner" that they felt "talent" should produce. They concluded that "differences in early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training and practise are the real determinants of excellence".

But there are others who disagree vehemently. Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, one of the world's top experts in human genetics, says: "There are, as far as I know, no hard data on the genetic basis of musical ability, but I believe the circumstantial evidence for such innate ability is overwhelming, as it is for mathematics, and this surely must be genetic."

In truth, it seems almost certain that both nature and nurture are important in forming exceptional musical ability. Take Michael Berkeley, composer and Radio 3 presenter. He is the son of Lennox Berkeley, also a composer. "When I was six, I knew without any doubt whatsoever that I was going to be a composer," he says. "My father said I wouldn't get there unless I did a lot more work. I always felt that there was something already there, but that it's a combination of the two." Lennox also worked for the BBC, though nobody claims that that is an inherited trait.

What would constitute strong evidence for innate talent? Not just excellence - that could be down to hard work. Perhaps not even exceptional ability in the young: prodigies are individually remarkable, but there are so few of them - we still think first of Mozart, born nearly 250 years ago. The fact that music is present in all cultures would seem to argue for innate talent. But its varied nature and significance to different cultures argues against it.

What is known about the role of genes? Not much so far. We know that some diseases and disabilities are heritable, and that some have simple causes which may be put down to a single gene. In others, several genes may be involved in complex ways. Leaving aside the fashionable euphemism "differently abled", it seems genuinely harsh to categorise other capacities as disabilities rather than exceptional abilities. Synaesthesia is such a one - the capacity to associate sounds, objects and ideas with particular colours - a quality that has been possessed by several famous artists and musicians. Autism can produce exceptional abilities (to recall and manipulate numbers, for example), accompanied by a general inability to perform more mundane actions.

Musical talent would seem to bear similarities to these conditions. Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, Massachusetts, is a leading opponent of Sloboda's argument. "One sees such exceptional abilities at such young ages that just seem to come from nowhere, that it is completely unrealistic to think that these are all the product of training," she says.

It is hard to design experiments to test this, however. The obvious path is to look at twins, but there have been few such studies, and the work that has been done has been flawed. "One study showed modest heritability, but I don't think they were looking at extreme talent," says Winner. "With extreme talent, I would bet anything there is more than modest heritability."

Another approach would be to isolate important components of musicality and examine them. Bodmer has speculated that perfect pitch (the ability to name or sing given notes) might be genetically inherited. Again, there is some evidence for this, but nothing conclusive. In any case, perfect pitch is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for musicianship.

If talent is genetic, Sloboda argues, then we should see many more prodigies, and in particular young talent arising in circumstances where it is not favoured. "Early ability is not evidence of talent unless it emerges in the absence of special opportunities to learn," he says. Even that prodigy of prodigies, Mozart, offers evidence both for nature and nurture. His father was a composer, but he was also famously ambitious for his son and bullied him towards musical greatness. In his review, Sloboda concluded that demonstrations of exceptional musical skill tend to follow, rather than precede, attempts to encourage it.

Winner believes the opposite, that talent engenders motivation. "You can't take an ordinary kid and make him so motivated that he will work in the intense way that a prodigy or gifted child would," she says. "A 'rage to master' comes with the talent."

Early childhood experience is clearly important. Most parents sing to their infants. Music psychologists have established that very young children "understand" music - in other words, they have an appreciation of some of its basic rules. They react to the repetition of themes and to certain rhythms and harmonies. Problems begin to creep in as children get older. Sloboda reports that children learn to reject discords and unfinished cadences in their primary school years, but a discord in one culture may be sweet music in another. Perhaps there are two sets of rules, a lenient innate set that frames the diverse musical conventions of different cultures around the world; and the more specific rules that are taught, either through music classes or implicitly through hearing particular kinds of music.

If musical talent appears to be unusually heritable there may - literally - be a sound reason for it. The foetal hearing system is sufficiently developed by the middle months of pregnancy that an unborn baby will react to loud music.

For performers, innate talent may be important, but so are physical attributes. Sloboda mentions the vocal tract characteristics required by opera singers, and the hand-span required by pianists to play certain works.

But it is curious that some researchers are prepared to accept that these physical qualities, and even particular facilities such as perfect pitch, could be genetic, while claiming that the mental attributes must be learned. This may simply indicate that we tend to neglect the effect of that which we cannot see. In fact, differences in brain development have been observed in "talented" people, but it is not clear whether these are caused by the genes or by particular mental activity during brain development.

Looking at composers may clear up some of the confusion. Composers don't need to be any special size or shape. They don't practise, at least not in the way that performers do, according to Dean Simonton, psychology professor at the University of California Davis. "It's not that composers don't have to learn their trade. But the correspondence between years of practise and virtuosity is relatively very high for performers."

Contrary to what one might expect, Simonton has found that "the most famous composers actually had fewer years of formal music training before they began composition, and were composing for fewer years before they began producing masterpieces." Berkeley's case would also seem to argue for genetic disposition to musical ability: "I knew that I would write music, but I was unable to focus my mind and start until my mid-20s." How did he know? "Because everything I felt profoundly about, things that moved me, emotions, manifested themselves as sounds in my head. I concocted wonderful musical landscapes in my mind."

The Matthews' experience, perversely, seems to disown both nature and nurture. "With us it's very odd indeed," says Colin Matthews. "We come from a pretty unmusical family. We didn't have a distinctly musical upbringing, although we were both reasonable pianists. Suddenly, both of us were struck by a bug, the conviction of wanting to become composers." Composition is notoriously difficult to teach, Matthews adds. "No two composers really learn or work in the same way. I sometimes think you're either a composer or you're not."

Anecdotes aside, proper studies are now needed. General cognitive ability (shortened to g), is conventionally, if inadequately, measured by IQ tests, and is thought to be heritable. Earlier this year, a group led by Professor Robert Plomin at the Maudsley's Institute of Psychiatry published the results of DNA marker studies (a means of tagging genes in order to establish their influence on attributes) which suggest that a gene is associated with high IQ. The gene also correlates with mathematical and verbal precocity. But this is not the whole story. "It is not the gene for g, but one of many genes responsible for the high heritability of g," says Plomin.

Among those on the nature side of the debate, there's agreement that no single gene is responsible for musical talent. Here may lie the key to the often-noted links between musical talent and mathematical or artistic abilities, or synaesthesia.

Meanwhile, perceptions of talent have had an unfortunate influence on music education. Surveys suggest that music teachers generally believe that some children have innate gifts. Consequently, teachers can see their task as identifying those "talented" individuals and fostering that talent. This seems a logical if harsh course of action if musical ability is inherited. But if "talent" is merely an artefact of our environment - a spiral in which a slightly above average ability revealed by chance is seized upon by a teacher who then sets challenges and encourages further ability - then this policy is cruelly unfair on "ungifted" pupils. The same argument goes for other fields from visual arts to mathematics where giftedness is thought to be important.

From their position that genes are unimportant, Sloboda's group state that "categorising some children as innately talented is inherently discriminatory. The evidence suggests that such categorisation is unfair and wasteful, preventing young people from pursuing a goal because of the unjustified conviction of teachers or parents that certain children would not benefit from the superior opportunities given to those who are deemed to be talented."

And if it's all in the genes, then we'll just have to wait for the therapies to become available that will bring music into our families, as it was in Bach's.