Learning Music: Talent vs Practice

Sep 13, 2023

For many people out there, the ability to play music must seem like some magical power. Talent seems to be something you either have or you don’t. And for far too many people not having “talent” is a large enough hurdle to keep them from ever trying, whether it’s sports, art, or music. They look up to these musicians who seem to have a “gift” to play or sing seemingly effortlessly. It seems like they only put in a few hours of practice, a lot more partying, and always seem to know just what to do when they get on stage. They seem to have been born to play, springing forth with all that musical knowledge and skill already in their brains.

But this is the great myth of music. Just like pretty much everything else in life, we only see the end product, not the countless hours that go into it. Sure, some people may be born with some innate talent or a head for music, but even those people need to work their butts off to make it look as easy as it does. Those musicians that we all look up to want us to believe that it’s pure talent that got them where they were. That’s a nice story. But the truth is many of them aren’t any more talented than anyone else, they just worked harder than others are willing to do.

What is Talent?

Before we go on to try to convince you that you don’t need “natural” talent to master music, we first must decide on a definition for the word “talent.” So what is it? The dictionary definition is “natural aptitude or skill.” Yet even with that simple definition, it remains a mysterious concept. Why do some people have it and others don’t? Researchers can’t even agree on where talent comes from. Some suggest that it is a natural characteristic, one that is inherited from the generations that came before. Others disagree, instead believing that talent is a result of education, family background, and other external factors.

What’s more, talent varies from person to person. One pianist might have worked for years to perfect their technique, playing in a way that is unique to them, but without any sensitivity to the emotion of the music. Their talent for perfect reproduction lacks the human connection to the music. On the other hand, another pianist might have worked hard to convey the feelings contained in the music, but neglected their technical skills. This musician’s talent may lie in their ability to “speak” to the audience, but their technical skill may be poor. The second pianist might be the more enjoyable to listen to, but both have a kind of talent.

Talent is Only a Part

Of course, a little bit of talent helps make most things a little easier. Regardless of whether it’s playing an instrument, or drawing, or sports, or even math. Ask anyone good at anything, and they’ll probably tell you they feel at least a little bit of a natural “talent” for the thing. But if you probe a little deeper, and ask those same people a few follow-up questions about their “gift” you’ll quickly learn all about the hard work and discipline it took to get them to their level of success.

Think about anyone you’ve ever looked up to for their talent, chances are high they didn’t make it big because of that talent. Bill Gates, for example, is an amazingly smart man, but he still spent a massive chuck of his adolescent years in his garage practicing programming. The Beatles played more than 1,200 gigs in Hamburg, Germany over four years before finding success in their native Britain. J.K. Rowling received dozens of rejection letters for Harry Potter before it was published. Each of these people, and countless others, have a unique talent, but that talent wasn’t the deciding factor that brought them success.

What do all these people have in common? Just one thing: time.

10,000 Hours to Become a Master

It’s a long-standing idea that to become a master in anything, you need to put in 10,000 hours of hard work and practice. As an old idea, it’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes the point quite nicely: to master anything, you need to put in a lot of time, effort, and practice. Talent doesn’t enter into it at all. This is true even for learning a musical instrument.

Despite what storytellers might present to us in books and on TV, the reality is that the everyday piano or guitar player didn’t get to where they are overnight, or because they were somehow “predisposed” to it. They worked for countless hours, practicing and studying. They spend nights, weekends, and any other free moment they have practicing, and perfecting their art. While they may not actually achieve 10,000 hours of practice in their free time, they are passionate enough about their music that they will put in the necessary effort to master it. To these musicians the truth is evident: practice trumps talent.

Time Over Talent

Now, don’t get me wrong, talent does exist, and it can act as a good head start, and might even keep a musician floating for a while, but eventually, inevitably, someone else will come along. This person might not have started out with the same natural talent, but they’ve put in the work. It may not take quite 10,000 hours, but it most certainly takes time, passion, and the drive to improve.

So what does it all boil down to? The simple fact is talent doesn’t make a musician, practice and effort do. If you want to play music, don’t worry about talent. Instead, focus your energy on putting in the necessary time and improving. The only thing that stands between you and learning to play an instrument is time. Talent might help some people get there faster, but as the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” (Tim Notke).

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