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Say “no” to talent

I have rarely, if ever, heard claims about musical talent being used in the positive sense, only the negative sense. Contrast, for example

  1. “Look at how well he plays! He’s so talented.”
  2. “I could never play like that. I’m just not talented enough.”

Statement 1 is a positive claim, i.e., it asserts that someone has the property of talent. Statement 2 is negative, meaning that it refutes the existence of the property in someone. Sometimes I hear people saying Statement 1, only to quickly follow it with Statement 2, in which case Statement 1 is really just a thinly disguised version of Statement 2. In our language, the word “talent” generally refers to something people don’t have, rather than something they do have.

If a property is not capable of being both a positive and negative description, does it really exist? As with anyone who makes a claim regarding the existence of something non-obvious, those who claim the existence of musical talent must shoulder the burden of proof.

In mathematics, a property of a set is called trivial if either all members of the set have the property, or if none of them do. For example, if we looked at the set of positive integers, we would see that each one of them is the product of prime numbers. Thus, this is a trivial property.

Allow me to generalize this concept to people. An example of a trivial property of people would be that all humans have brains. Of course, I’ve never tested this personally, and no one else has, but it’s conceivably true. Doctors have looked in many peoples’ heads, and in every case, there was a brain, so by the principle of induction, it’s safe to assume it holds for everyone.

Now, it may be the case that some people, instead of having brains, actually have little fairies in there, making everything run. But again, since we’ve never seen that in anyone, I’ll take the existence of head fairies to be another trivial property (since no one has it).

So, when I meet a person on the street, it’s a waste of time to wonder whether or not he has a brain, or if he has head fairies. Since these are trivial properties, I know the answer already.

Is musical talent a trivial property? Anecdotal evidence may suggest otherwise. You may say you know a little girl who can play the piano at a professional level, and a grown man who, after 15 years of lessons, can barely play “Chopsticks”. That may show that the little girl does have musical talent, but it doesn’t show the grown man does not (for all anyone knows, the man might be about to experience an epiphany, everything will “click”, and he will vastly outperform the little girl). To show that a property is non-trivial, you would need to show that someone has it, and that someone doesn’t have it. Besides, anecdotal evidence is hardly scientific, and I generally refuse to accept it.

How, then, would one demonstrate the existence of musical talent? The only way would be to contrive a “musical IQ test”. Such a test would be given to people before any musical training commenced. Those who scored well on the test would, after years of musical training, have a high level of musical ability. Those who scored poorly would, after the same training, have a low level of musical ability. This would provide strong evidence for, if not prove, the existence of musical talent, as it would show there exists a musical aptitude independent of musical training.

Unfortunately, there is no such test. It is also far from obvious what such a test would measure, exactly. Perfect pitch? Physical dexterity? Although variations in certain abilities such as these may be quantifiable, they don’t uniformly translate to actual musical ability. That’s not to say a test could not be devised, but as of now, we have not found one. Thus, I take it as a working assumption that musical talent does not exist.

If you believe that musical talent “obviously” exists even in the absence of such a test, I want you to think long and hard about what is so “obvious” about that, and then tell me why the “obviousness” itself does not function as a musical IQ test.

You may say that my assumption is naïve, and that it contradicts all of your personal experience. To this I respond that if your personal experience is such strong evidence, it should hold up to scientific scrutiny, and I doubt it does.

I fully recognize that such an assumption is just that: an assumption. Without evidence to the contrary, however, I prefer to go with the assumption that is most productive.