Temporal Relativism (1668 Hours)

In a recent article in the NY Times, a meta-analysis of 88 scientific papers on deliberate practice found that only 21% of the difference in performance between musicians was due to the number of hours they had practiced.   This would seem to call into question the entire democratizing premise of this blog (that anyone can achieve a certain level of mastery after 10,000 hours), and begs the question of what is causing the remaining 79% of performance difference?  The Times article claims that the difference is “talent” but the scientific paper it quotes actually states that the 79% is an unknown quantity.

Since the study was a “meta analysis” looking at a large number of studies, it can only show that variations within a group of people may depend on other factors besides the number of hours practiced.  It is important to remember that variation in an individual’s performance still depends entirely on the amount and quality of practice they put in.   In other words:  no matter how “talented” a person may be, you can’t get to Carnegie Hall without putting in 1000’s of hours of practice.   The exact number of hours to achieve “mastery” will vary from person to person, but there is a critical mass of hours for both the musically gifted and the musically challenged.

That being said…. it is also immediately clear that not every ability is influenced by practice.  Some traits & abilities are binary: you either have them or you don’t.  Most of these binary qualities can be learned or acquired, but are not significantly affected by practice.  Other skills are progressive: they exist on a continuous range and can be improved incrementally with practice.  Mastery of any musical instrument is a combination of binary and progressive skills & resources.  Having certain binary attributes can accelerate the benefit you get from practice because these binary skills influence not only the way you practice, but also help determine your comprehension of that practice.

Examples of Binary Traits:

  • perfect pitch
  • musical literacy
  • possessing passion/drive
  • knowing music theory
  • knowing good form
  • efficient practice routines
  • having a positive attitude
  • having a GOOD teacher
  • access to a quality instrument
  • owning a practice microphone
  • exposure to specific composers
  • working memory
  • understanding the biology of learning
  • understanding of basic physics
  • vocabulary

Examples of Progressive Skills:

Most of these binary traits and progressive skills are deeply linked together.  The NY Times study merely demonstrates that 21% of musical performance results from the small portion of progressive skills that are independent of binary traits.  In other words, only 1/5 of the skill gap within a group of musicians is from practice-based skills alone.  This does not invalidate the so-called “10,000 rule”, since thousands of hours of practice are still required for mastery.  It simply means that 10,000 hours is a rough estimate, and the benefit of each hour spent in the practice room increases dramatically with the acquisition of more binary traits.   Some people may call these prerequisites “talent.”  However only two items on the list are accidents of birth (Perfect Pitch & Working Memory), so I choose to call the sum of these binary traits: preparation.