Tuesday, October 2, 2007

10,000 Hours

I've been immersed in a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music. The author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuroscientist. 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.


Chip Boaz said...

As an educator, I've always agreed that "talent" is not the determining factor in musical success. This article providing some interesting statistics on that. The one area that I think also contributes to musical success is basic exposure to music. I think young people that experience live performance, listen to a variety of art music, and have access to musical role models simply progress quicker. Not that they have inherent "talent;" it's more that they've experienced these things before and the act of music creation seems more natural. Overall, interesting ideas, thanks for that.

Richard Prowse said...

I'll keep practising!There's hope for me yet.

Helena B. said...

This information is consistent with what I have heard from most of the world class bassists I've talked to, such as Victor Bailey, Al Caldwell, Chuck Rainey and others.

These guys are tremendous musicians, and told me how they practiced several hours a day for years to get where they are. And even though they have "arrived", they still continue to practice and play purposefully, all the time.

Rainey calls himself a "student of the bass." Bailey told me that when he practices he is aware of every note, deciding how long to play it, how to attack it, etc.

I can relate to this dedication and attention to detail more on the writing side than on the music side, as it's not unusual for me to practice writing for three hours a day seven days a week. These days if I manage one hour a day three days a week practicing bass that's a lot.

When one aspires to be world class at something, it becomes a challenge to figure out how to serve more than one artistic master. But I persist anyway. Only 9,175 hours to go.