Differences in musical ability are often associated with formal training, deliberate practise and a healthy dose of ‘natural talent’. Research, however, is beginning to contest this theory, opting for a more nuanced approach.
Children all the way through to adulthood are presented with a wide variety of entertainment, recreation and stimulation, culminating into a host of options in which time is the currency for exchange. Each of us have to decide upon how to invest our time to gain the best outcomes for our individual prospects. This is exactly what researchers of cognitive abilities propose. They believe that our cognitive resources are finite and that decisions on how to invest that finite resource must be finely calibrated with our already existing predispositions – to extend and make the most of our abilities. For example, a child who perhaps has an underlying factor predisposing them to athleticism might choose to disproportionately invest their time into a sport; these sporting experiences will feedback and further extend the child’s athletic potential. An explanation like this would make sense, as the athletic arena is probably where this child has a greater chance of gaining social respect, competence and enjoyment; so its logical for the child to invest their resources into this area – as there’s potential for a bigger payday at the end of it.
A relatively stable individual factor that could be influencing these investment choices could be personality. Personality determines what we idiosyncratically perceive, feel and think, as well as who we choose to surround ourselves with. Our own personality types could also be influencing what we seek out and peruse. People tend to broadly fit onto a spectrum comprised of five broad personality traits, with people often demonstrating a single dominant trait of the five. Everyone is somewhat introverted, for instance, but some are more introverted than others – expressing this as their more dominant personality factor. The investment theory of skill development presumes a person’s dominant personality factor and its effect are being mediated by something i.e. personality traits prompt a person to engage (or disengage) with their surrounding opportunities, activities and experiences in slightly different ways, which, in turn, causes a person to potentially acquire greater training in a certain domain – eventually making the person an expert in the chosen domain. In this scenario, the training is mediating the initial role the personality factor played in skill development.
One of the five broad factors of personality that people some people tend to highly express is ‘openness to experience’. A defining component of this trait is a heightened curiosity drive. Which just means these individuals, on average, seem to desire new experiences and knowledge and aren’t happy to define themselves as simply being good at one thing. If there was a phrase to define open people it would probably be “jack of all trades, master of none”.
Open people are, interestingly, more likely to take an interest in music and more frequently experience ‘aesthetic chills’, like goose bumps and involuntary shivers, when listening to music. People who rate high on the openness trait also experience more instances of inner representations of imagined music, when none is physically being played. It could, then, be the case that open people are investing their time to an above average extent in music.
This is exactly what the research is beginning to bare-out.
A study examining people’s ability to discriminate notes showed that the higher a person rated on the openness to experience trait, the better they were at musical note discrimination. More interesting was that the openness to experience rating reliably predicted exposure to formal music training. When the researchers put both the openness to experience factor and level of musical training into the model, a person’s openness rating no longer predicted their ability to discriminate between notes. Musical training, however, showed greater predictive power than it had done before. This, therefore, suggests that the openness to experience factors’ influence on note discrimination is completely mediated by formal music training. In other words, open people are more likely to invest their time in musical endeavours and gain formal musical training, which, in turn, develops their ‘musical ear’.
Musical ability could very well be determined by how open a person tends to be, rather than by some mysterious musical talent factor, or formal training alone.