For centuries, scientists and the public alike have tried to determine if talent genetically runs in families when it comes to music. There are certainly many cases where that has appeared to be true.
The Bach, Strauss, Mozart and Mendelssohn families are among those that seem to have musical talent racing through their genes. The Bach family included 20 highly respected musicians, with Johann Sebastian Bach being the most well known. The Strauss family had a music dynasty that helped to establish the waltz as serious art music. The Mozart and Mendelssohn families had highly talented siblings.
In the Mozart family, the musical abilities of Wolfgang’s sister haven’t been as recognized over the centuries because of the times in which she lived. Maria Anna Mozart was taught to play the harpsichord by her father and also played piano. She joined her younger brother Wolfgang on tours and was considered a music prodigy. She was also apparently a talented composer; Wolfgang showed his appreciation for her abilities when he wrote in a famous letter to her:
“My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well, in a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.”
However, when Maria Anna reached adulthood, her father forbade her from performing publicly and her compositions were lost over time. The potential impact of her work is unknown.
Fanny Mendelssohn fared somewhat better. She and brother Felix had the same music teachers and were very close. However, like Maria Anna Mozart, Fanny faced challenges from her father who told her music could only be an “ornament” in her life. She continued to compose despite her father’s admonition and lived long enough to see some of her works published. Unlike Maria Anna, numerous compositions by Fanny survive today.
Since those days, many talented siblings and families have joined forces to create successful musical groups. There was the von Trapp family featured in The Sound of Music. Brothers who have launched acts range from the Beach Boys to the Jonas Brothers. And during Women’s History Month, it is noteworthy to recognize the proliferation of successful groups with sisters, including the Andrews Sisters, the Pointer Sisters, the Bangles, Wilson Phillips, Heart, the Dixie Chicks and so on.
Nature Versus Nurture
The subject brings up the ultimate nature versus nurture debate: Is musical talent really genetic? Or is intensive music exposure at a young age the most important key?
The nature angle gets a boost from stories involving musicians like Grammy-award winning artists Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar. They are half sisters who did not grow up together. In fact, they did not meet until they were adults.
But there are stronger suggestions with families like the Kanneh-Masons in Britain that both nature and nurture are likely at play. All seven siblings in the family are extraordinarily talented musicians. Sheku Kanneh-Mason gained recognition when he played his cello at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. And all of his siblings have racked up accolades.
That would suggest nature is at play. But the Kanneh-Masons and their teachers openly talk about nurture aspects, such as practice. In a video produced by CBS Sunday Morning, the youth talk about their practice regime, which includes two to three hours of practice on school days and five to seven hours on weekends. The youngest daughter Mariatu says she hopes she can be a better cellist than her older brother with lots of hard work.
“You don’t just be amazing – it takes lots of practice,” Mariatu Kanneh-Mason said.
The Science Behind Musical Talent – Practice
Practice is one area that scientists have repeatedly studied. Psychologists have found the amount of time people practice does seem to have a genetic component – that certain genetic makeups tend to encourage some individuals to practice more. However, there are questions about how much difference practice makes.
Recent studies suggest that the oft-cited “10,000 hours of practice” rule is flawed. A meta-analysis of 88 studies completed by Brooke Macnamara of Princeton University, David Hambrick of Michigan State University and Frederick Oswald of Rice University, for example, suggested that practice plays a role, but not as much as some people may think:
“We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”
That suggests that all the practice in the world may not tip an average musician into the realm of music genius. Hambrick told Scientific American that this is important to note so that unrealistic expectations aren’t set for children.
“The idea that anyone can become an expert at most anything isn’t scientifically defensible, and pretending otherwise is harmful to society and individuals,” Hambrick said.
This is not to say Hambrick and others negate practice by any means. Studies also have shown that genetic potential may only be fully realized with practice. Our genes may play a role in determining a certain ability level, but people may only be the best they can be through the nurturing process of practice.
Other Factors Affecting Musical Ability
Of course, nothing is simple when it comes to music, genes, and science. If we assumed from the study above that 21% of musical expertise comes from practice, could the remaining 79% of skill really just be dependent on genes? There are certainly cases where musical geniuses did not pass along their ability to their children, suggesting more is at play.
Scientists have pointed out that there are of course other factors on the nurture end, such as exposure to music, high-quality teachers, and helpful feedback. It would be hard for someone to become a successful musician if the person was constantly given negative feedback.
One of the biggest challenges has been defining what music talent even is. Several studies have researched perfect pitch as a measurable genetic parameter for music aptitude. But everyone knows that there is much more to musical greatness than getting the notes right.
Scientists have looked at neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine to study creativity and emotion. Brain connections between particular regions have also been researched. A study completed by University of Southern California researcher Matthew Sachs found that people who get chills from music have structural differences in their brains. He found they have stronger connections between their auditory cortex and areas associated with emotional processing.
That may play a strong role in a musician’s ability to tap into emotion. However, it can be hard to study intangible factors – that extra something that makes an audience stand up and notice.
In the CBS Sunday Morning video, Howard Ionascu, director of the Junior Academy at London’s Royal Academy of Music, reflected on one musician who has such ability. Whether it’s genetics, nurturing factors, or both, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one young musician who seems to transport his audience to another place. And science may just not know all the reasons why.
“It’s the bubble… We see this a lot in truly gifted people,” Ionascu said. “The trick with him is that he goes into his bubble, but we don’t get cut off. You always feel a part of his performance. That’s the gift.”
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