This episode was a really exciting one for us because we got to speak with Professor Anders Ericsson, the leading academic researcher on the topic of “talent”.

If you’ve been listening to the Musicality Podcast for a while, then you know we have a particular perspective on “talent”, and we’re often asking our guests their opinion on how important talent is to become a great musician and learn the skills we associate with being a “natural” in music, like playing by ear, improvisation, song writing and more.

So for a long time we’ve been wanting to speak with the man who’s done more serious research on this topic than probably anyone else.

Professor Ericsson has been researching talent for over 30 years and has become famous for two things: the so-called “10,000 hour rule” for becoming an expert, and the idea of “deliberate practice”. We actually did a whole episode of this show on the 10,000 hour rule, and deliberate practice is an idea that runs through all of our teaching at Musical U. So you can imagine what a treat it was to get to talk to the man himself!

He recently published a book titled Peak sharing the biggest findings from that research, co-authored with Robert Poole, and if you enjoy this episode then you must check it out, it is packed full of more information, explanation and examples of everything we talk about today.

We were determined to make the most of this conversation and we asked Professor Ericsson the big questions we knew that you would be interested to hear the answers to…

Questions like:

  • Is there such a thing as musical “talent”?
  • If you don’t have talent for music, will that affect what you’re able to accomplish?
  • Do you need perfect pitch to become an expert musician?
  • What’s the most effective way to spend your practice time – especially considering the vast abundance of tutorials and other resources available at our fingertips online these days?

His answers were just as fascinating as we’d hoped. We were looking forward to this interview for ages and it did not disappoint.

We should mention there’s a brief section towards the end where we have some noisiness on the audio. We apologise for that, we had real technical issues on this one but Professor Ericsson was really gracious and patient and in the end it turned out really well apart from that one glitchy section.

We hope you’ll enjoy this episode and feel encouraged and inspired by the proven truth about musical “talent” and what it really takes to develop your musical skills.

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Does musical "talent" really exist? Hear the answer, direct from the pioneering scientific researcher Professor Anders Ericsson.



After reading “Peak” I felt really excited. Professor Ericsson has done the hard research that backs up a lot of what we teach at Musical U about musical “talent” and what it really takes to become a free, natural, confident musician.

It was super cool to talk with him and dig into some of these topics. Let’s recap.

I started out by asking the big question: is there actually such a thing as “talent”? Professor Ericsson noted that different people have different ideas of what talent is and how you’d recognise it. He started out with the inherited cultural idea that “talent is rare, and part of education is to identify those with talent”.

But he soon found that expert musicians actually spend 20-25 hours per week doing solo practice, being guided by their teacher. So if that’s what it takes, how could you possibly know if a 5-year old is talented? It turned out there wasn’t much substance to how people judged these things.

So he started asking “is there really any convincing evidence that some individuals can do things which others couldn’t if they got the right kind of instruction and practice?”

And if you look for example at what determines whether someone has perfect pitch it seems to all boil down to whether you have training in recognising specific notes in the first 5 years or so. Additionally he noted that isn’t actually as useful as relative pitch for musicians.

It turns out that even “prodigies” like Mozart actually fit this pattern of expertise coming more from training and guidance than any magical ability from birth.

Are there skills for which you do need some talent to get started? He says that apart from physical attributes of your body, like it helping to be tall if you want to play basketball, he hasn’t found a single example of where some natural trait is required to become an expert in a skill.

What about the impact of talent on your highest possible level of achievement? Again, there’s no real evidence that your inherent traits affect the heights you can reach. He said that if you learn alone then the way you learn the skill can limit how far you go – for example getting into bad habits of instrument technique that you’d have to unlearn to reach the highest levels. But aside from that, there’s no inherent limiting factor.

Sometimes people see those further ahead or improving faster, and that discourages them – but this is only a psychological self-limitation, not anything fundamentally preventing them from succeeding. Our ideas of what’s possible are also strongly affected by what we believe is possible in general, which we see for example the great progress in sports and music over the last century or two as individuals proved new things possible and everyone else was quickly able to keep up.

I asked Professor Ericsson about the so-called “10,000 hour rule” and he clarified that there’s nothing as specific as the number 10,000. To become world class in music in fact it might be more like 25,000 hours, practicing consistently from youth until in your mid 30s.

And it’s not just about putting in the hours – it’s about working with a teacher who identifies the things you can’t do, then going off and doing training that allows you to do them.

So the more useful finding from that research wasn’t about putting in a specific number of hours – rather it was the discovery of what’s called “Deliberate practice”, generally regarded as the most effective and efficient way to practice to improve.

Being guided by a teacher is a crucial factor in deliberate so they can highlight the areas to work on and give you practice exercises to improve them.

In some domains you can do “Purposeful practice”, which involves the same kind of identifying and tackling specific problems in intense focused practice sessions – but without the guidance of a teacher. In some domains such as darts that can work fine, but in most, including music, you are better off doing deliberate practice with a teacher’s guidance.

We talked about the importance of having a mental, aural model of the music you’re trying to perform. This ties back closely to the advice which Gerald Klickstein, author of The Musician’s Way, gave back on episode 10 of this podcast. If you haven’t heard that one please go back and take a listen, it’s a beautiful complement to this one.

As well as that mental model Professor Ericsson emphasised the value of actually listening while you practice. If you can’t analyse and enjoy the music as you play it, you’re at a real disadvantage with all the practice you do.

Finally I asked him if in the current age of technology and all the resources available online for the self-learner, do you still need a teacher? And if not, what does purposeful practice look like for a self-learner online? He said that for young learners particularly, having a teacher spending attention and effort listening to you and guiding you creates the right foundations for success. And as an adult it’s really valuable to work with a teacher who’s seen the kinds of challenges that you as a musician are coming up against to help you best use your practice time and improve as quickly as possible. He also noted how helpful it can be to have a teacher help you set the right expectations about what’s possible and how fast because sometimes adult learners come into learning a skill with quite unrealistic ideas. He said that even taking lessons with a teacher using live video lessons online can work great, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in person. And that aside from having a teacher you can usefully do ear training so that you can make your own aural judgements, this is a helpful way to guide your own improvement.

So if you’ve ever been skeptical when we talk on this show about talent being overrated or unnecessary, or you’ve been concerned that you might not have what it takes to become the musician you dream of, I hope this episode has caused a lot of lightbulbs to go off! Although it is super encouraging and inspiring to hear the truth about talent, I know that it can also be slightly intimidating too – because if it is all possible then that puts a bit more pressure on us, right? It’s not so easy to blame natural factors if we know that actually it’s all down to how much and exactly how we practice music. So I hope you’ll take advantage of all the episodes of this podcast, the free resources available on the Musical U website and possibly even a free trial of Musical U membership to give you the concrete specifics of how to work on these skills. Because you don’t need talent – but you do need the right kinds of exercise and some expert guidance if you want to truly accomplish everything you wish to in music.

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