Musical genius: nature or nurture?

Researcher identifies four key factors in the development of child prodigies

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:23:05 PM

Piano lessons, voice coach, season’s tickets to the symphony…You put a lot of time and money into your little Mozarts. But if they’ve inherited your
tone-deaf genes, will all the hard work and practice ever pay off?

Françoys Gagné, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, has conducted a large-scale study on that very question. Focusing mostly on talented young musicians, particularly pianists and violinists, he found many believe both heredity and environment share in their musical success.

Gagné likes to speak about the four P’s of talent to explain musical genius. There is potential (heredity), passion (the young person’s love of music), and perseverance, or the ability to make a sustained effort to build on one’s talent—an ability that could, it seems, be hereditary.

The fourth P?

Parents,” Gagné replies without hesitation. “Child prodigies have had two strokes of luck: they were born to parents who gave them the right genetic material for developing a specific talent, and who also provide them with a stimulating family environment.“

Gagné emphasizes the key role of family during a musician’s early years. “Financial support is important for bringing out talent,” he notes, “but the family must, above all, encourage the child to experiment, try new things, and provide the child with opportunities to discover his or her talents.”

Françoys Gagné’s research on musically talented youth was funded by SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.