Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began his musical training at the tender age of three. By age five, he had already composed his first piece of music. As a child, he mastered the piano, along with several other instruments including the violin, organ and harpsichord. By all accounts, he was a child prodigy. But he was far from the only composer to have a head start: Ludwig van Beethoven, Martha Argerich, Vincenzo Bellini, Claudio Arrau, and many of history’s greatest musicians all began their training in early childhood and went on to wow the world.
The success of these musicians raises the question: Do you need to start early to be great? Many of us assume that the younger we start, the better our chances of becoming the best. Certain research backs up this claim. Some psychologists have even suggested that there may be a key period in early childhood when we have a particularly powerful capacity to absorb musical aptitude. According to this view, if you wait until your teens or even early adulthood to begin your training, you will have missed a critical window.
Yet a new study by Laura Wesseldijk of Vrije University Amsterdam and her colleagues challenges this view: It explores the possibility that environmental and familial factors are the driving forces behind the success of “early starters.” Such individuals may have an edge not because they learn in a developmentally unique period but because they inherit talent, have access to instruments and instruction, or get a head start on practice. So it is possible that starting late might not prevent you from becoming great.
When comparing early starters to late bloomers, one critical factor to consider is total practice time. We know that practice matters because it can take thousands of hours to achieve expertise. Any study seeking to isolate the benefits of early exposure has to match training time for those who start early versus late in life. But there is a challenge in matching total training time: late bloomers with extensive practice tend to be much older than early starters with the same practice. Given that some kinds of cognitive performance often start to decline in early adulthood, comparing old late bloomers to young early starters could inflate the advantages of beginning young.
To add to the challenge, practice time and age are not the only factors to consider. Imagine you are the child of a concert pianist. It is possible that some aspects of musical talent have a genetic component, and if so, you may have inherited a predisposition to excel musically. Even if you did not, you are raised in a musically-enriched environment, with a piano in your home and a parent who plays regularly. Either your natural talent or your experience, or both, may lead you to begin banging on the piano keys as a toddler. Lucky for you, you have a parent with the knowledge and expertise to nurture that interest. You are indeed an early starter, but you also have familial and environmental advantages that could accelerate your musical development.
Wesseldijk and her colleagues explored the effect of these familial and environmental influences by assessing musical aptitude and expertise in two independent populations—professional musicians and adult twins with musical experience. By including professional musicians, the researchers assessed aptitude and expertise in a cohort of highly trained, active experts who had begun their training at varying ages (from age two to 18). Through studying identical twins, the researchers could examine differences in aptitude and expertise for pairs of individuals who shared the same familial environment and genetic predispositions but may have started their training at different times.
More than 300 musicians and 7,000 twins participated in the study, and they ranged in age from 27 to 54. The musicians selected were still active in the field, and each of the twins had received musical training at some point in their lives. Participants reported the age at which they started to play and the hours they practiced each week during different age intervals (for example, six to 11 years and 12 to 17 years). Using this information, the researchers estimated the age of onset of training and accumulated practice for each participant. Participants also completed two online assessments: one for musical aptitude and the other for musical achievement. The aptitude test measured the basic musical skills of pitch, melody and rhythm discrimination. The achievement test evaluated different metrics of musical success, including the body of composed and performed works, number of awards, national and international reviews, and pieces featured in public performances.
The team’s findings suggest that early starters do not benefit from a critical developmental window for cultivating skill and expertise but rather from additional hours of practice, the experience of growing up in a musically engaged family and perhaps even a genetic predisposition for musical prowess. They first examined the relation between starting early and later musical aptitude and achievement in both the musician and twin samples, controlling for total practice time. In this analysis, an earlier start in musical training was associated with higher scores on some aptitude measures but not higher musical achievement. In other words, when total practice was held constant, individuals who were exposed to music at an early age showed higher scores on the basic skill of pitch discrimination—yet they were no more likely than late bloomers to have their music played on the radio or in public concerts, to win awards, or to receive national or international reviews.
To understand the contribution that genes and environment play in musical prowess, researchers turned to the twin data. Researchers estimated genetic and environmental factors by comparing identical twins to each other, to fraternal twins (who share only 50% of their genes on average), and to experienced musicians in the general population. If there is no genetic component to musical talent, then the data from identical twin pairs should be similar to data from fraternal twin pairs. Similarly, if familial environment has no influence on musical success, then data for twins reared together should look the same as data for unrelated musicians. Not surprisingly, the findings suggest that heredity and environment do contribute to musical aptitude and achievement. When the researchers further controlled for these genetic and environmental influences, an early start was no longer predictive of musical aptitude. Put simply: the early starters didn’t score higher on the aptitude tests because they began their training earlier but because of genetic and environmental factors that gave them an edge. Children who have a natural talent for music and/or a musically gifted parent are more likely to be exposed to music at an early age and have their talent nurtured. These factors explain the advantage that early starters have over late bloomers with respect to musical skill.
So we can all take a breath and relax if we (or our children) failed to start playing a musical instrument by the age of five. You didn’t miss the window because, as the findings demonstrate, no such window exists. If your passion for the piano emerges in your teens or even in adulthood, you are not destined for mediocrity. Those of us learning to play later in life can still aspire to greatness, just as Bill Withers, who began his musical career in his late 20s, still managed to write and produce award-winning music and to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That said, one essential ingredient in the recipe for success is practice. If you don’t get an early start, you may need to stay up late, putting in the hours—practice makes perfect.