Are musicians musical by nature, are athletes born to run, jump or swim?
Or are these skills as a result of their environment and socialisation?
Generally, it has been accepted that it is some combination of the two elements of nature and nurture that influence the development of an individual, and their specific competencies.
This study focuses on the significance of parents in the development of these specialised interests and skills. Musical ability has been chosen as a case study. The study covers the topic from the perspective of both parents and children and addresses the concepts of a musical brain, the potential genetic influence of parents, and the motivation and the methods used to create an environment conducive to the development of these skills.
This topic explores my macro world through the study of my cross-cultural component. This component addresses the role of parents in the development of other specialised interests and skills. In this case, I have chosen to study the development of skill and interest in athletic and sporting activities.
My initial hypothesis was that parental influence would be extensive, and relating to both genetics and the environment, however the degree and process would vary depending on the values, ideals and circumstances of the family, and on the chosen skill.
The Genetic Role of Parents in the Development of Specialised Interests and Skills
Undoubtedly one of the most obvious and universal contributions to the development of a child by his or her parents is the passing on of their genetic material. This material, a combination of genes from both parents, contains base instructions for the individual to be created. This chapter recognises this significant contribution from parents on a social and cultural level and focuses on the perceptions of this and on whether or not these genetic instructions extend to the presence of innate abilities and skills, especially musical and athletic aptitudes.
In both musical and athletic endeavours there has been research in to the ideas of a “musical brain” and “raw” athletic talents. The foundation of these ideas is the genetic influence of parents on their children.
For example, extensive research has been conducted into the brains of talented musicians, in comparison with non-players. Researchers at Germany’s University of Heidelberg studied the nerve cell “grey matter” in the auditory cortex of professional, amateur and non-musicians and found that musicians generally had more activity in this area and that even amateur musicians had 65% more brain matter in this area and the area was 37% more active. However, the researchers were still unable to determine whether the musicians had developed bigger brains through playing instruments or if having a bigger brain gave them musical ability. Another German study at the University of Tuebingen supports the latter, again exploring the notion of a musician’s brain being “wired” differently for enhanced sound recognition and ability.
Evidence of a musical brain and genetic predisposition to musicality is further supported by familial case studies such as that involving the Bach family, and also studies of other musical prodigies. The presence of many musical prodigies in one family strongly suggests a genetic link, especially when outstanding ability is displayed much before environmental influences have had a lengthy time to socialise the child.
“This quality is one that develops so early in most marked cases that its innateness cannot be questioned. A Bach, matured at 22; a Beethoven, publishing his compositions at 13 and a Mendelssohn at 15, a Mozart, composing at 5 years, are the product of a particular protoplasm of whole tenacious qualities we come to realise when we learn that the Bach family comprised twenty eminent musicians and two-score others less eminent”
The presence of 40 talented musicians in a family, some of the most famous of which had musically matured on exiting adolescence, has strong implications for the presence of some genetic influence. The extent of this influence, with current data, is impossible to determine.
Similar cases supporting a genetic predisposition to a skill are found in studies of athletic ability. The concept of the ‘born athlete’ is one that supports the social glorification of our sports champions and motivates their high social status.
One of the most interesting and controversial studies of athletic superiority is Jon Entine’s book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. In his book, Entine makes it exceptionally obvious that people of African descent appear to have a natural flair for running faster and jumping higher than those of other ethnic backgrounds. While the issue of racism and superior races is frowned upon in sports, Entine’s statements are not without justification:
“The qualifying time for the men’s 100 meters for this year’s Olympics was 10.6 seconds, considered slow by modern standards. Nonetheless, Norway could not produce a qualifier for the Sydney games. This came as no surprise to Olympic analysts, as no Norwegian has ever topped 10.08 in the 100 meters. Neither has a runner from Finland (10.27), Denmark (10.23), New Zealand (10.27) or Taiwan (10.27). In fact, no runner of Caucasian, Hispanic or Asian descent has ever cracked the 10-second mark in the100 meters”
This evidence implies a genetic predisposition in those of African descent to run faster than those of other racial backgrounds. It is a valid conclusion, then, that within African populations there are trends of genetic difference that predispose members to these skills. Darwinian natural selection would suggest that these genetic differences occurred as a response to the unique African environment.
In Questionnaire 1: Musical Interest and Ability, 65% of participants ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ with the statement that, “Musical ability is inherited, as opposed to being learnt”, and none of the participants ‘strongly agreed’ with it . This data is indicative of the large extent to which individuals acknowledge the environmental influence on the development of skills, which is addressed later in this report.
Some participants, 23%, were reluctant to place one influence over the other, one commenting that it “can be both” . The validity of this data is questionable, particularly because of the small sample size used, and so is more indicative of a trend than providing statistics that could be reliably generalised to a larger population.
The concept that the role of a parent can be both environmental and genetic was further supported in my qualitative research. One participant, a vocalist and pianist in her own right, and the mother of 17 yr old vocalist and pianist, was asked if she believed there had been any significant genetic influence on the development of her daughter’s musical skills, she replied, “Most definitely – both parents are musicians! In my family both my parents love music passionately and sing in choirs. All of my siblings have shown some musical ability, and all have displayed untrained singing ability.”
This support of a genetic influence did not exclude the idea that a child’s environment plays a very important role in the development of interests and skills. When asked what elements of her daughter’s environment and lifestyle are suitable to the development of a strong musical affiliation, she replied, “I ensured that music was playing a lot. Lots of singing and dancing. I actively encouraged interest by providing an environment that allowed music to be listened to and played, and there are plenty of musicians in my social circle.”
Will G Hopkins, of the University of Otago, New Zealand, said the following in regard to the potential genetic influence of parents:
“Genes are responsible for about half the variation in physical performance between individuals in the population. Genes also account for half the variation in the response to physical training. Genes are probably even more important than training in explaining differences in performance between athletes. Talent identification and selecting an appropriate partner are therefore logical approaches to creating elite athletes.”
This quote harbours the concept of a new role of parents in the development of specialised interests and skills, or rather, the development of children specialised for certain skills! With genetic engineering technology on the rise, will parents ever have the opportunity to manipulate the skills of their children on a genetic level?
While there are many stories, theories and ideas regarding the weight genes carry in the development of specialised abilities in the individual, the is not conclusive quantifiable evidence. If, or when, a definite genetic influence is identified for musicality, it is unlikely that it will conclusively describe the extent to which genetics predispose an individual to a specialised skill. I predict that, due to the interplay between genetic predisposition and the environment, this would be a case of continuous variation and a figure would be difficult to assign to any population as a whole.
One of the most relevant quotes found throughout my secondary research into the role of parents in the development of their child’s specialised interests and skills was that, “Genes don’t give some athletes an innate ability…But there can be no doubt they give them an innate capacity.” This statement provides a concise conclusion to this chapter. It acknowledges the significance of a genetic contribution, albeit not on of a directly inherited ability, and implies that if an inherited capacity is nurtured in an individual’s micro environment then that capacity can evolve into an interest and ability.
Is it just in their nature?
The Environmental Role of Parents in the Development of Specialised Interests and Skills
Regardless of the potential genetic influence of parents on the skills of their children, a child’s environment has fundamental and extensive influence on the development throughout childhood and adolescence of an individual, and of their personal specialised interests and skills.
Some of the potential subjects of this influence, adolescents in this case, participated in Questionnaire 1: Musical Interest and Ability. They appear to acknowledge the significance of parental support in their response to the statement, “Musical ability is inherited, as opposed to being learnt”. A majority of participants, 65%, specified that they ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ with this statement. However, many participants were unsure, or unwilling to place one spectrum of influence over another (23%) .
The creation of an environment and the provision of opportunities by parents were addressed in all facets of research conducted and were identified as some of the most significant influences of a parent in the socialisation of their child, and the development of that child’s specialised interests and skills. Also explored in this area of study was what motivates parents to encourage specialised interests and skills and how they go about doing so. The consolidation of information gathered from both my micro world and the macro world suggests that the role of parents on an environmental level is highly significant.
The motivation of parents was found to be one based in the presence of a common interest, a value of the skill, or a value of the development and process of acquiring the skill.
Secondary sources indicate that in the case of both musical and athletic skill, it is likely that one or both parents of an involved child show personal interest in the same area. The children of physically active parents, for example, are much more likely to take up a sport than children whose parents do not play sport.
Parents have great significance as role models, being the most important people to whom a child relates in their earliest years. The idea of “social heritage” was explored in relation to interest in physical activity by Pfister. In interviews with footballers conducted in his study, all were found to have learned the game by kicking a ball with their fathers and/or brothers, and all tennis players were found to have parents who also played tennis.
This concept was not supported by my results from Questionnaire 1: Musical Interest and Ability, in which there was a fairly even spread of participants who strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “One or both of my parents display a strong interest and/or skill in the musical field”. This result, however, is challenged by later questions in the same questionnaire, which results indicate that the majority of participants felt that, generally, their parents had a significant influence on the development of their chosen specialised interests and skills, and that they share musical tastes with their parents, suggesting a common interest.
This inconsistency probably shows a flaw in the questionnaire rather than a contradiction, possibly due to the small sample size used in the quantitative data.
One of the most telling of the questionnaire results was the strong support of the statement “I would still be a musician if my parents did not display any interest or skill in the musical field” by participants. 49% of participants strongly agreed and 29% of participants agreed with the statement. I found this challenge to the significance of the role of parents was of great interest, however it was undermined by the identification of many ways in which participants’ parents had provided support in their endeavours.
When considering parents as catalysts for musical and athletic development, it becomes imperative to recognise the values common to the parents of talented children. With regard to musical interest and ability, these include the value of education and achievement, rewarding children when they succeed, having high expectations of oneself and others and have the self-discipline to achieve set goals.
Similar values are seen in cases involving athletic development. For example, Ben* is a father of three children who all participate in athletic activities ranging from football and soccer, to ballet. When asked what motivated him to encourage the development of athletic interest and skill in his children, and why he values this interest, he replied that a “pursuit of excellence and supporting pride in self achievement. I like seeing my children achieving goals they set themselves. I value interest because I believe being fit in body can complement being mentally active and social interaction”.
A strong value of education was identified in a number of interviewed parents, and the selection and methods of musical education can have a very significant effect on the development of a child’s musical interest and skill.
Suzuki Talent Education is both a philosophy and a method of music education that embraces the total development of the child. The basis of the philosophy is that, “man is the son of his environment”, that is that the environment of an individual is an extremely significant influence on that person’s overall development and competencies.
Regarding inherited or innate abilities, Suzuki says, “I have no doubt that people are born with hereditary physiological differences, but I believe that a person’s abilities grow and develop depending on the stimulation from outside.”
Regarding musical ability, Suzuki states that, “Musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability which can be developed. Any child who is properly trained can develop musical ability just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue. The potential of every child is unlimited” , and that, “an unlimited amount of ability can be developed when parent and child are having fun together” .
The second of those quotes is the one most relevant to this area of investigation. Parents play a crucial role in Suzuki Talent Education. This role extends to attendance of all lessons, taking notes and becoming the home teacher. Parents also help to create a loving, encouraging and understanding environment and attend workshops, concerts and graduations.
During childhood and adolescence, the genetic role of my parents was amplified in the construction of environments and social practices, such as live music at social gatherings. This encouraged my own ability and the value I place on music as a means of entertainment and creative expression, and as a source of emotional connection and social interaction with others.
Other research supports the idea of the chosen interest being incorporated into family activities and outings. This is seen as a means of sustaining the child’s interest. Parents also provide the resources, materials and technology required to further facilitate a child’s creative and specialised interests.
I was also given the opportunity to perform to various audiences from a young age with my father in his work and this active encouragement of performance developed my skills and boosted my confidence through positive reinforcement, while also demonstrating musical performance as a potential source of income. Other individuals of my age group were also found to have extensive performance opportunities, formal and informal, and state this as a significant influence on the development of their musical achievement and enthusiasm.
In my questionnaire, 92% of participants identified that they were actively involved in performing groups such as bands and theatre groups, or had entered in to competitions.
Hector*, a 17 year old self-taught electric guitarist and trained cornetist, said that his extensive performance opportunities have, “helped in the development of important and personal ways of dealing with stress and nerves” and that performance, “builds confidence once you are recognised for your skills…motivates for future performances” and creates, “a drive to better yourself to further impress your potential audience”.
The implications of a love of performance as a motivation for musical improvement place parents at the forefront of skill development. In creating these performance opportunities parents are able to contribute not only to the development of musical skills, but to the development of a performer with confidence.
Elements of the Suzuki environment, associated with Talent Education, are ones that were found to be quite common to the households of musical children. The home environments of children with specific interests, especially musical ability, are busy and productive, and in many cases are very focused on the chosen area of interest. These environmental elements are complemented by information gathered during self reflection, stating that live music was a common form of entertainment at social gatherings and that music has been a, “quintessential part of my home environment for as long as I can remember.”
This is further supported by results from quantitative and qualitative methodologies. In Questionnaire 1: Musical Interest and Ability, 74% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I consider listening to and/or playing music to be common place in my household”. Further support is found in an interview with a mother of an adolescent daughter, who identified the following as her actions to encourage the development of musical interest and skill within her home environment:
“I ensured that music was playing a lot. Lots of singing and dancing, buying toy instruments and making learning music fun. Having lots of live music at social gatherings and always having instruments in the house, and talking about music.”
The creation of these environments and opportunities can be linked to the more practical roles of parents, in particular those relating to financial support.
Practical parental support ranges from the purchase of instruments, travel to competitions and lessons. Without these superficial materials, it is doubtful that my interest or ability could have developed from such a young age, or with such intensity. Similarly opportunities and conditions for sporting activities are essential to a developing interest and are often provided by parents. These could include equipment, transport and information.
The role of parents on an environmental level was found to be quite diverse and extensive, ranging from buying equipment and social status to pre-natal care. There were some commonalities between my case study and cross cultural study, such as the values shared by parents motivating their children’s interests and skills. Both children and parents recognised the significance of this influence and offered very thoughtful and insightful qualitative responses. The questionnaire results used are sound representations of trends, however, due to sample size, offer limited statistical reliability.
When all the song and dance is done…
As research progressed my hypothesis was both fulfilled and exceeded. I found that both aspects of influence were considered significant in musical and athletic ability, and domains of influence that I had not considered became apparent as research continued. There was primary and secondary acknowledgement of both arenas; however it appears that there is far more primary research being conducted in to the environmental influence of parents.
A recurring conclusion, from both primary and secondary research, was that apparently innate, genetic-based abilities were fostered in the environments created by parents due to a personal interest, a value of the skill or a value of education. This ultimately resulted in an acknowledgement of the diversity and extent to which parents play roles in the development of their child’s specialised interests and skills.
Source by Helen Henry