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How do you become a musician?

I studied music when I was little, at the conservatory. Solfeggio, music theory, harmony, singing, and piano. I’m not a musician. The education I received was quite deficient, my extreme vagrancy did not support the cause too much. In spite of that, I reached the sixth year of piano, only two years after finishing my degree, and also with quite good grades. I never considered myself a musician, much less now that I almost have my piano abandoned in a corner. If I had had a good education and tenacity, I would have become a good performer… who knows? But I never thought I could compose anything interesting or moderately audible, even if I had tried and given it all.

My case is not so rare and I have always wondered how of the millions of people who studied music in their childhood, there are relatively few who continue to play as adults, and even fewer who can be considered musicians even if it is potential.

There is an unclear gulf between the professional or expert musician and the music lover. But it is curious that this only happens with music. I will never be able to cook like Ferrán Adríá, but I greatly enjoy my cookery activities, which I love to share with friends and family. Maybe because I consider that I don’t do it badly and my environment feeds me back. On the other hand, I don’t like it, nor have I ever liked playing for others, I didn’t do it badly and the environment also encouraged me to do so.

Although many of us who received music education in our childhood have the false idea that it didn’t help us at all, cognitive neuroscientists have discovered that this is not the case. Even small exposure to music lessons in childhood creates neural circuits for music processing that are stimulated and more efficient than those who lack such instruction. Music lessons teach us to listen better and accelerate our ability to discern between structure and form in music, making it easier for us to say which music we like and don’t like. Well, I buy it, because I see myself identified.

But how do great musicians get to be them? How do they get that extraordinary facility to play and interpret? Are they different neural capacities or structures from the rest of mortals? And even among musicians, are the skills needed by a composer and an interpreter different?

Is it a question of talent?

We may actually be talking about what is commonly known as talent. Michale Howe, Jane Davidson, and John Sloboda made this question relevant from the following point of view:

    • Either high levels of musical expertise are based on innate brain structures, i.e. talent
    • or are only the result of practice and instruction

In this case, this group of cognitive scientists defines talent as something that:

Originates from genetic structures.

    • is identifiable at an early stage by educated people who can recognize it at an early stage.
    • can be used to predict who is likely to excel.
    • only a minority can be identified as endowed with it because if everyone had it, the concept would lose its meaning.

Some children acquire skills faster than others. Genetic factors should be considered as the responsible ones, but not the only determining ones, since an enormous quantity of secondary factors take the main role: personality, motivation, family dynamics… The same factors that can influence the musical development.

It seems that the absolute ear has a reflection in the plane of hearing. A region of the auditory cortex that is larger in people who have absolute hearing, but what is not known is whether it starts being bigger in people who end up having absolute hearing or if it will rather that the acquisition of the absolute ear makes the plane of hearing increase in size.

The thing is clearer when it comes to specialized motor movements. The practice increases the corresponding part of the brain that is in charge of it, but it is also not known if the tendency to increase is pre-existing in some cases and not in others.

Evidence to support the idea of talent is that some people simply acquire musical skills faster than others. However, music specialists have to go through long periods of study and practice to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel. That is, perfection comes with practice.

Therefore, the use of the talent label is a vicious circle: when we say that someone is talented, we say that they have some innate willingness to excel, but deep down, we only apply the term retrospectively after significant achievements have been made.

The 10,000 Hour Theory

In a multitude of multidisciplinary studies, the figure of 10,000 appears as the hours needed to become an expert in everything from music to basketball. About three hours a day or twenty hours a week for ten years. Of course, where there is no one can not get out, and there are those who get nowhere after those 10,000 hours, while others make great use of the time invested.

The theory of 10,000 hours coincides with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in the neuronal tissue. The more experience we have of something, the firmer the memory/learning footprint of that experience becomes. Although people differ in the time it takes to neurally consolidate information, increased practice means a deeper imprint or many more imprints. The strength of a memory is linked to the number of times the original stimulus has been experienced.

The strength of memory also depends on how much we are interested in the experience. Neurochemistry labels associated with memories mark them according to their importance, and we tend to codify them as important things that bring a lot of emotion, both positive and negative.

Interest may partly explain some of the initial differences in the learning speeds of different individuals. If I am playing an instrument I like, I will pay more attention to tonality differences and how I can moderate and modify the tonality of my instrument.

In short, interest leads to attention, and together they lead to measurable neurochemical changes. Dopamine is released, associated with emotional regulation, alertness, and mood, and the dopaminergic system aids in the coding of the mnemonic footprint.

The 10,000-hour argument is compelling because it appears in study after study in all fields, and scientists like order and simplicity. But this theory, like all the others, has holes in it. For example, there is Mozart.

Everyone knows that at the age of 4, he was already composing symphonies. In fact, Mozart began to compose when he was 6 and his first symphony was at 8. In any case, the precocity is amazing and 10,000 hours do not appear anywhere… or do they? Bearing in mind that his father was considered the best music teacher in Europe and that Mozart began to practice at the age of 2, assuming that he worked 22 hours a week, at the age of 8 he had already stored the 10,000 hours of rigor.

But this first work by Mozart only inspires historical interest, not aesthetics, and if Mozart had not become Mozart, nobody would know it. Mozart composed his truly great works long after 10,000 hours had passed.

And what do geneticists say?

They suppose that if there is a genetic contribution to music, it will appear in the bosom of the family. However, it can be very difficult to separate the influence of genes from the influence of the environment, especially in an activity like music that involves a learning component.

Even so, music tends to run in families, and the children of musicians are more likely to be stimulated by their early musical tendencies than those born in a non-musician’s home.

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If a trait appears to be hereditary, we can try to isolate the genes that appear to be related to it. With the added complexity there may be related genes that are not active.

Studies focusing mostly on identical twins separated at birth confirm that, because of the striking similarities found, religiosity, delinquency, and musicality have a strong genetic component. These coincidences could also be explained by means of statistics or even taking into account the psycho-social aspect since many of the incidents that happen to us in life are conditioned to a certain extent by how others see us. There is nothing strange about being identical twins, who may end up having similar personalities, habits, or peculiarities. In the latter case, the genes are influencing, although in an indirect and secondary way.

It is not difficult to extrapolate this argument to musicians. The essence of musical interpretation is to be able to transmit emotions. If the artist is feeling them, or if he was born with the ability to make it seem like he feels them, it may not matter.

Genetics is a starting point that can influence personality or career, or the specific things one chooses when embarking on a career.

Musicians use the body as well as the mind. The role of the body in the handling of a musical instrument or in singing means that genetic predispositions can contribute significantly to the choice of instruments that a musician can play well. However, there are guitarists and pianists with small hands and violinists with large hands.

Some people have a biological predisposition towards specific instruments or singing. There may also be a set of genes that work together to create the endowments one must have to become a musician: good eye-hand coordination, muscle control, motor control, tenacity, patience, memory for certain types of structures and patterns, a sense of rhythm, and synchronization.

You have to have those things to be a good musician. Some of them are necessary to be good at anything, especially resolution, self-confidence, and patience.

Emotion is not taught

Not even in the big music schools. Emotion is not part of the curriculum of any music school. Only on exceptional occasions, in exceptional schools and for exceptional students, is the emotional aspect attempted to iron out, which is what a musical experience is all about.

Why are some musicians superior to others, not in the technical dimension of music, but in the emotional dimension? This is a great mystery of which no one knows the answer.

We can’t put a musician performing inside a brain scanner, nowadays we have to be completely still for this kind of test. Sure it’s just a matter of time, but for now we don’t have the scientific information we could get with this test.

From interviews and diaries of musicians as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Bernstein, B.B. King, or Steve Wonder, it seems that mechanical and technical factors are involved in the task of communicating emotion, as well as something that remains mysterious.

Remembering music involves putting back the neurons that were originally active in the perception of a piece of music in its original state, reactivating its specific connectivity pattern, and achieving activation rates as close as possible to their original levels. This means recruiting neurons in the hippocampus, amygdala, and temporal lobes into a neuronal symphony orchestrated by the frontal lobe planning and attention centers.

Non-musician listeners are exquisitely sensitive to the physical gestures that musicians make. By observing a musical performance with the sound turned off, and paying attention to things like the movements of the musician’s arm, shoulder, and torso, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of the musician’s expressive intentions. If the sound is added, an emerging quality appears an understanding of the musician’s expressive intentions that goes beyond what is attainable only in sound or only in the visual image.

Musical memory

Expertise in any field is characterized by superior memory, but only for things included within the field of that expertise. Musicians rely on knowledge of the musical structure to schematize their knowledge.

When musicians memorize songs they rely on it to do so in a structure and the details fit into that structure. It is an efficient and frugal way for the brain to work. Instead of memorizing each chord or note, we build a structure within which different sounds can fit, a mental template that can include a large number of musical pieces.

Musicians do not usually learn new pieces note by note once they have reached a certain level of experience, knowledge, and expertise. They can build on the previous pieces they know and limit themselves to noting any variations from the standard scheme.

Brute force memorization also works, we simply do our best to memorize information by repeating it over and over again. However, this mechanical memorization is greatly facilitated by a hierarchical organization of the material. This kind of old and simple memorization is what musicians do when they learn the muscular movements necessary to play a particular piece.


Being a skilled musician takes many forms: playing an instrument, emotional communication, creativity, and special mental structures for remembering music.

Being an expert listener, which most of us are at the age of 6, involves having incorporated the grammar of our musical culture into mental schemes that allow us to form musical expectations, the essence of the aesthetic experience of music.

How all these diverse forms of expertise are acquired remains a neuroscientific mystery. But the emerging consensus is that musical expertise is not something individual, but includes many components, and not all musical experts will be equally endowed with these diverse components.

Becoming a famous musician is a completely different matter, and may not have as much to do with intrinsic factors or skill as it does with charisma, opportunity, and luck. But one essential aspect is repetition. We are all expert musical listeners, able to make very subtle decisions about the music we like, and that story is another very interesting facet of the interaction between neurons and notes, which we will see on another occasion.

If you like/are interested in this post, I strongly recommend that you read Your Brain and Music. The scientific study of a human obsession by Daniel J., Levitin.

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