Aptitude (a.k.a. “talent”) exists: here’s the evidence!

April 20th, 2018

It’s a true scientific breakthrough, based on research jointly conducted in Canada and Germany [Herholz et al. 2016].

  1. Start with fourteen people who have never played a musical instrument.
  2. Try to teach them to play some simple arrangements of well-known songs on the piano in just six weeks.

What the people didn’t know: by looking at their brains (using MRI imaging) ahead of time, the researchers would be able to predict

  • who would learn easily, and master all the songs
  • who would really struggle, and only manage a few

The researchers call it “neural pre-disposition”. We typically call it “talent” or “potential” or “aptitude” for music.

The Experiment

People trained at home using electronic keyboards, 30 minutes at a time, using a computer program designed for this study. Weeks 1 to 4 were first spent learning about notes, then learning about intervals (differences between notes), and finally learning simple sequences of notes, all over a total of 20 training days (5 days/week x 4 weeks).

During weeks 5 and 6, people were then taught to play simple arrangements of well-known songs over 10 training days (5 days/week x 2 weeks). In all, there were 19 levels of instruction.

The Results

Here’s what the researchers discovered:

  • The “strongest” performer mastered everything on just the 3rd  day.
  • The “average” performer needed about 6 days.
  • The “weakest” performer only managed to reach level 6 (out of 19).

More generally, by the end of the 10th training day,

  • About 80% of the performers were able to complete all 19 levels of instruction.
  • About 20% of the performers did not.

Of course, during the six weeks of piano playing, the brains of the study participants did change, but *not* in those areas that characterize “musical aptitude”.

For example, one brain “structure” that did change is associated with recognizing notes of different frequencies (researchers call this “pitch discrimination”) and that’s what people were learning during weeks 1-4.

Of course there needs to be more study, in part because of the rather small population (just fourteen people). And we need other research groups to obtain similar results.

Well what about operating heavy equipment? We already know that there are differences from person to person. And that you can’t spot those differences just by looking at people.

But do you need to scan their brains to make predictions? The answer to that question is “no”, because “training” simulation will do the trick.


Read the entire research report here.

[Herholz et al. 2016] S. Herholz, E. Coffey, C. Pantev, R. Zatorre, “Dissociation of Neural Networks for Predisposition and for Training-Related Plasticity in Auditory-Motor Learning”, Cerebral Cortex, July 2016.