What makes a musical genius?


Is musical talent down to nature or nurture? Prof Steven Frucht is determined to find out what makes a true musician

WHAT IS the ineffable thing that marries the notes in a musician’s head with the ability to translate that into great music flawlessly and in a way that others can only admire?

The relationship between the brain and music has fascinated Steven Frucht, professor of neurology at Mount Sinai Medical Centre in New York and an accomplished violinist himself.

Most music lovers are aware that musical talent seems to run in families, but many attribute that to the environment in which a musician is raised and the incentive to practise.

The old axiom that the three ways to Carnegie Hall are “practise, practise, practise” still pertains, but sometimes practise is not enough.

Frucht’s interest in the neurology of music will be the subject of a unique concert which takes place tonight in the National Concert Hall.

It will involve the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, traditional musicians Lúnasa and Prof Frucht who is in Dublin for the International Congress of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders which takes place this week.

Frucht will explore questions such as what musical talent is, how the best musicians get to be so good (how does the concert pianist Lang Lang move his hands so fast?) and what can go wrong with inappropriate or excess practise?

He came to the subject through his work helping musicians with the potentially career-threatening disorder called focal dystonia, also known as musicians’ dystonia.

It afflicts musicians who use their hands repetitively in very complicated arrangements and is a neurological condition which can be crippling.

He helps them with treatments which include, unusually, botox.

Frucht says great musicians operate at the “outer limits of what human motor control can do with speed and dexterity”.

Such musicians have motor controllability which is well beyond the 99 per cent percentile of what most people are capable of doing.

The question that particularly intrigues Frucht is whether such gifts are nature or nurture. In his case, he believes it is nature.

“From personal experience, I believe there are very strong hereditary factors that are probably necessary to have a substrate to go into the field,” he says.

He adds the caveat that if the person is not in the right environment or does not get the right training, such gifts will be lost.

He says that if you observe very young children playing music there are some who are innately more skilled than others.

Musical talent is a combination of refined motor skills and what is known colloquially as “the ear”.

It takes a combination of both to make a great musician. The musician hears the notes in his head and feeds the information to the hands.

“There’s motor control and also the ability to integrate both the sensory perception, the information coming back through the instrument, and also the auditory information of what is coming out, the output, and the ability to process that so quickly. If that learning curve goes well, the accomplishments come very quickly.”

The musicians he believes who perfectly fulfil these criteria are the great violin player of the first half of the 20th century, Jascha Heifetz, his favourite musician, and the concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. More recent exponents of musical virtuosity include the brilliant young Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.

In the popular idiom he describes Eric Clapton as a “genius guitarist”. He also cites Les Paul, BB King and in the jazz world Oscar Peterson.

The jazz saxophonist John Coltrane could play music at “unbelievable speed” while creating the music by improvising as he went along.

So far, so interesting, but how do you prove that people are born to be great musicians? Frucht says proving that there is an innate skill or even a gene for musical talent is very difficult scientifically.

“You can’t do a controlled experiment” he says. “You can’t pluck someone out of their environment. We have absolutely no idea what those genes are, what we call talent.”

It is clear though that there are certain forms of inherited ability in music such as absolute or perfect pitch, the ability to sing or play a note just from hearing it, and synaesthesia, the ability to see or imagine certain colours when they hear music.

He acknowledges that you cannot prove that musical ability is inherited, but it has been proven that playing music alters the emphasis that the brain puts on certain tasks.

“Musical training exerts a profound influence and that influence does not end just in childhood,” he explains.

“When you take your kids to music lessons, you are actually doing a procedure on them. You are rewiring their brain. You are changing the anatomy of their brain. You are having more of an impact on the structure of the brain than anything else they do.”

The act of playing music expands the area of the motor and sensory cortex which operate the hands and the auditory cortex in the brain which operates the ear.

For that reason, he maintains, music education is “absolutely” the best education you can give a child. Not only does it expand sectors in the brain, but it teaches discipline, attention to detail and the concentration which can be applicable in any walk of life.

“Having seen it myself in people I grew up with, those things transfer to other things,” he says.

Frucht believes that brilliant musicians are simply brilliant, unlike sports people, for instance, who can be brilliant at their sport but show no great aptitude elsewhere in life.

“If you look at the great musicians in the pop and classical world and you talk to them, the ones who achieve at the highest level are all brilliant. They didn’t just have this isolated talent. They just chose to focus on music. For many of them, they could have focused on something else, law or business, etc, and done just as well.”

Prof Frucht will appear at the National Concert Hall tonight with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, David Brophy as conductor, and Lúnasa at 8pm. Tickets: €22-€27 (conc €20-€25); 10 per cent group discount available

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