An Early Start is Key to Musical Skill
Is there a developmental period early in life when the brain is especially receptive to musical training? Perhaps not.
I love to play the piano, currently working my way through the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach. If you have not heard these extraordinary pieces, I urge you to do so. My favorite recording is the second of the two versions by Andras Schiff. This 2012 version illustrates his impeccable technique and his unusual ability to delineate musical voices through subtle weighting.
It surprised me to learn that Schiff has a synaesthetic perception of keys. He sees A minor as red as blood, D major as brassy gold, C major the white of innocence, B minor is black, the color of death.
Enough of my wanderings. Let’s get back to the question of whether there is a developmental period early in life when the brain is especially receptive to musical training. We know that the masters of music inevitably put in tons of hours to hone their craft. We also know that successful musicians often start their musical training early in life. In this context, we ask the question of whether a key period of musical sensitivity exists in early childhood. The answer appears to be complex, but no.
Here is what researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute did: They recruited 310 professional musicians from various Swedish music institutions, including orchestras and music schools. They also used data from a historic study, the Study of Twin Adults: Genes and Environment (STAGE). In both studies, subjects answered questions designed to gauge how often they practiced and the age of onset of their musical training. The STAGE data provided information about the genetics of the participants.
The scientists then compared the results from these two independent studies. Here are the findings:
- Musical aptitude — Earlier start age is associated with musical aptitude, among both amateurs and professional musicians. This link held even when researchers adjusted cumulative practice time.
- Genetic factors — possibly linked to musical interest and talent — play a substantial role in determining the start age for musical study as well as their future aptitude. Interestingly, when the scientists controlled for familial factors (including genetic factors and environmental influence such as a home environment filled with music — there appeared to be no link between earlier start age and musicality.
Could it be that those with more talent are encouraged to start practicing earlier and more? Or does a musically engaged and talented family create a musical environment conducive to the musical development of the child, while passing on genetic predispositions to engage in music?
This study appears to represent the largest (and only genetically informative) study to focus on whether starting music training at a younger age leads to higher levels of musical expertise. While early initiation predicts higher levels of musical aptitude in adulthood, the association diminishes when one controls for familial liability. Here’s the take of the study authors:
“Genetic predisposition for music may make children start musical training at a younger age. Our findings provide little direct support that early training has a specific, causal effect on later performance and achievement; rather, they highlight the importance of taking into account cumulative measures of practice as well as genetic and shared environmental factors when studying sensitive periods and effects of an early age of onset of musical training on expertise in later life.”
Thanks for joining. I hope you listen to that Bach keyboard rendition!
The best recordings of JS Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier
Bach's collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys has long been a bible for keyboard players…