Scientists have discovered it takes more than practice to develop musical expertise.
In a new study, researchers proved a strong working memory is essential to allow a musician the ability to sightread a new piece of music, an important and complex skill for musicians.
Interestingly, for over a hundred years experts have debated the influence of practice vs. genetic talents toward developing musical proficiency.
Traditionally, genius was viewed as coming from inherited ability. Now many researchers think practice is the key.
In 2007, researchers proposed that it takes a decade of intense practice to become an expert. Elizabeth J. Meinz of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and David Z. Hambrick of Michigan State University wanted to look at working memory capacity, the ability to keep relevant pieces of information active in your mind.
Pianists use working memory when they read music. They aren’t reading the notes their fingers are currently playing; they’re looking ahead to read the notes that are coming next.
All musicians do this, but Meinz and Hambrick study pianists partly because they’re convenient; they’re easy to find and have a wide variety of levels of skill and experience.
For the new study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, pianists were asked to sightread six pieces from a book of sightreading tests. The book was chosen because it’s rarely used in the United States.
Musicians have to do this kind of test routinely in auditions. They were given pieces with various levels of difficulty.
Judges graded each pianist based on technical proficiency, musicality, and overall performance. The pianists were also asked about their piano-playing history, including how many hours per week they had practiced in each year they’d been playing, and took tasks that measured their working memory capacity.
Practice was definitely important. The amount of time a person had spent practicing explained about 45 percent of the variance in sightreading skill.
But working memory capacity was important, too; when the researchers took out the effect of practice, another seven percent of variance in sightreading skill was explained by working memory capacity.
“Practice is absolutely important to performance,” says Meinz.
“But our study does suggest that cognitive abilities, particularly working memory capacity, might limit the ultimate level of performance that could be attained.”