Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Notes by Howard Gardner

A study published in the journal Psychological Science claims to show that music practice does not have an effect on music ability after researchers observed 10,500 Swedish twins and found no evidence that practice produced better music skills, suggesting that "genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice."

I am often asked how much of each intelligence in MI theory is based on nature (genetics) and how much on nurture/culture (child-rearing, formal education, practice, etc.). I have been deliberately agnostic on this question because it can only be answered convincingly by the use of behavioral genetics methods, of the sort used by behavioral genetics (as exemplified in the aforementioned article).

That said, both my wife Ellen Winner (author of the well-known book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities) and I have been extremely skeptical of the claims, made chiefly in the scholarly literature by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues and in the popular press by Malcolm Gladwell) that talent is essentially due to practice. No one doubts that practice is necessary, but we (and others) have doubted that anyone can become an expert, and that there is no such thing as talent. As I’ve put it most dramatically, if you were in the same cello class as Yo-Yo Ma, you’d soon see the difference in performance from one week to the next. The same goes for other domains—as, for example, being in the same math class as a young person who goes on to win the Putnam competition.

This article is one of the first to actually tease out the effects of heritability on musical ability. Contrary to the Ericsson-Gladwell hypothesis, the association between music practice and music ability turns out to be largely genetic; moreover, differences in the environments of subjects did not contribute materially to differences in the capacity to discriminate rhythms, melodies, and pitches.

In a similar study, also in Psychological Science, researchers studied the effects of deliberate practice on performance in several domains, including music, games, sports, education, and professions, finding that practice was a poor measure of explaining variance in performance in each case (from explaining 26% of the variance for games, down to less than 1% for professions).

While a single study or pair of studies should not be over-interpreted, such findings should give pause to those who believe that practice alone determines how well one will perform and at what rate expertise will be achieved.