Is it possible for a person without any inherent musical talent to become skilled at playing an instrument?

AMI Faculty
Remus Badea, Executive Director, American Music Institute

In questions such as this, the major discussion falls on the debate of nature versus nurture. Those individuals supporting the nurture version are of the opinion that individuals are born without built in knowledge or perception and individuals learn through the socialization process. Those supporting the nature theory purport that individuals possess certain knowledge.
Individuals termed as having inherent musical talent are those individuals who easily identify the off key notes, the pitch and understand music concepts more easily than individuals termed not to possess musical talent.

In my view, a person without any inherent musical talent can become a skilled musical instrument player. It may take more time and effort, but the potential to become a skilled and expressive musician is there.

A person who is termed as lacking music talent is said to have the following characteristics:

  • They lack a sense of rhythm – difficulty in coordinating beats.
  • They are tone deaf – they cannot notice off pitch melody or whether a melody is off tone.
  • They are poor at collaborating with other instrumentalists.

A person who does not possess musical talent can play the musical instrument of their choice if the possess the following attributes:

Dedication – most individuals who want to excel to being skilled instrumentalists should be dedicated to putting much effort into achieving the goal: this includes putting more hours into practice and getting a talented teacher. A lot of time should be reserved on practice. A person who is not a talented instrumentalist but dedicates a considerable amount of time to practicing will end up being a skilled instrumentalist or musician.

Passion – this is another attribute that plays a great part in developing a musician. I can define passion as a great love for the instrument or music studied.

Private Lessons

Imagine an individual who is forced to take up music by a parent, guardian or teacher. The decision to practice was imposed; therefore, the passion to pursue the practice is not in them. The student will tend to skip practice or even drop out entirely. Passion for the instrumentalist-to-be is paramount for them to be successful.

Hard work is another factor that influences whether a non-talented individual can be a skilled instrumentalist. Hard work involves the resilience and the effort the student has to put to be good at what he/she is learning. This ranges from going out of their way to do extra studies to ensuring that no lessons are missed.

Determination is another attribute that should be present. Every path one takes, there are very many critics and skeptics. Living past all these skepticism, means nothing can hold him/her back.

NB: These attributes must be inherent to the individual who wants to be a skilled instrumentalist. I have to insist that they all have to be present.

Further like any other behavior, becoming a skilled instrumentalist has to be accompanied by a favorable environment:

A person who is nurtured in an environment where music is a part of life, despite the absence of talent, may tend to learn to be and become a skilled instrumentalist since he/she has been nurtured in a musical culture. For example, in a family where the parents are musicians and the elder siblings have studied music, the individual, as a result of being socialized in music, may tend to be interested and thus pursue music even if they do not possess talent.

Supportive teachers and families can also play a part in influencing whether a not-so-talented individual becomes a skilled instrumentalist or whether they drop out.

To consider a case of an untalented individual who has found a love for playing guitar. This individual has even started taking classes. Imagine the father tells this person that he has no talent and that no one in the family has ever played any instrument. This discouragement may affect the individual negatively and may lead to them giving up their musical studies.

Group Lessons

Becoming a skilled instrumentalist is easier for a talented individual than for an untalented individual. This is because the untalented individual has to practice long hours to make the same progress a talented individual can make in a shorter time. The concepts are easy for him/her and they don’t have to struggle to be good at it.

Practice does not make you a talented musician but bridges the talent gap between the untalented and the talented musician. However, practice makes the untalented instrumentalist a skilled and fine instrumentalist. He can notice off note music, variant pitches, and also has acquired skills to collaborate with other musicians.

In a nutshell, the ride for the untalented instrumentalist is not as easy as that of the talented instrumentalist.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” –Stephen King

A good example of a music composer who was deemed untalented was Erik Satie. He was labeled untalented by his professor of piano at Paris Conservatoire who defined his piano technique as “insignificant and laborious” and “worthless.” Satie joined the army as he did not make a very good impression at the school.

Satie is a good example of a person with determination, dedication, and passion who became a very good musician or, as he prefers to be called, a composer. Therefore, we can say, the lack of talent can’t be taken to be a reason why individuals are not skilled instrumentalists. However, a determined individual, hardworking, dedicated and passionate can make a skilled instrumentalist.

“Every artist was first an amateur.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Talent, on the other hand, is overrated. The sentiment that its lack thereof is good reason why an individual cannot be a skilled musician or instrumentalist is misguided. The downside of not having the talent is that the individual takes a longer time to get to the position of being skilled than the talented individual.

In my view, any individual who picks up a musical instrument and dreams of playing a sweet melody has already set forth on the journey to being a skilled instrumentalist as long as dedication, hard work, passion, determination and a conducive environment are present.

There are other reasons why learning music is important beyond issues of talent. Adults who play an instrument — even if it’s just for fun — are able to reduce their stress and use the activity as an emotional outlet. Working adults reduce their chances of job “burnout.” Seniors who engage in music making can better manage diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson, and increase their self-esteem.

Call AMI today for music lessons that can change your life: (630) 850-8505.

Remus Badea is Concertmaster of Southwest Symphony Orchestra, adjunct professor at Elmhurst College, and Executive Director of American Music Institute. He teaches violin, viola, cello, and piano.