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Aside

Unit 44 – The Neurologist’s Concerto

Difficulty: medium/hard

Time: 6 minutes

The passage below has been adapted from an article by Ronan McGreevy, published in The Irish Times, entitled ‘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.
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. “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.”
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.”

 

1. “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?” – How is this question treated in the passage?

  • A      It is largely ignored
  • B      It is answered anecdotally
  • C      It is responded to succinctly
  • D      It is shown to be irrelevant

 

2. Based on information provided in the passage, why is it difficult to conduct a ‘controlled experiment’ to prove that musical ability is innate?

  • A      Experimenting on children is immoral
  • B      Identifying and isolating all the variables is impossible
  • C      The ‘talent’ of the musicians in the experiment would be subject to preference and bias
  • D      Playing music actively alters the anatomy of the brain

 

3. Which of the following statements, if true, would most significantly influence Frucht’s opinion on the nature versus nurture debate in relation to musical ability?

  • A      Children trained in music from a young age always surpass those who aren’t
  • B      Musicians diagnosed with synaesthesia are rarely very good
  • C      Young children rarely differ from each other in terms of innate musical ability
  • D      Most children don’t discover their real talents until much later in life

 

4. Which of the following would Frucht consider to be a most surprising outlier among people?

  • A      An orchestral violinist with a PHD in mathematics
  • B      A former professional rugby player now employed as a commentator
  • C      A famous singer who is also a commercial pilot and national fencing champion
  • D      An All-China kickboxing champion who built a chain of highly successful businesses
  • Answers:

    Q1: C
    Although the question is not answered immediately, it is responded to later on: “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.” and backed up with a quote from Frucht.

    Q2: B
    Proving that musical ability is innate, rather than learned, would require the experimenter to be able to measure all of the factors (internal and external) and quantify their effect on the individual’s musical skills. Frucht explains that you can’t ‘pluck someone out of their environment’ i.e. removing the external influential factors, and it is also impossible at the moment to identify the biological factors… “We have absolutely no idea what those genes are, what we call talent”
    Morality and bias (A & C) are not referenced at all in the piece. D is irrelevant to the question.

    Q3: C
    Frucht is clearly an advocate for the nature side of the debate. He argues his position by explaining that ‘ if you observe very young children playing music there are some who are innately more skilled than others.’ If this fact has persuaded him to believing that musical ability is hereditary, which statement, if true, would reverse it?

    Q4: D
    “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.”
    A & C are musicians who have become successful in other areas of life. B is a sportsman, but he has not gravitated outside of his sports profession. He is employed as a commentator, but isn’t necessarily brilliant at it.
    D is a sportsman who is also highly successful in business. He is a more surprising outlier than C because, since C is also a musician, Frucht would assume that he is brilliant.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    June 25, 2012

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