During my Masters Degree I completed a paper that discussed the stimulation of musical abilities in the early stages of a pianist’s development, the role of piano repertoire and different forms of piano lessons. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it was one of my favourite papers as it challenged me to think in depth about musical ability.

As a piano teacher, I think understanding what musical ability is and detecting it is hugely important. How we think of this determines the way we approach each student and how prepare our lessons.

So…what is musical ability? 

I read a quote in Kimarskaya’s book ‘The Natural Musician’ (if you haven’t read it put it on the reading list!!) that said,

“What are the qualities that can turn some people into great musicians, but not others? Is it down to genes, sheer hard work, or some other quality in the individual?”

Am I right in saying that a lot of us think musical ability is a gift that only some of us are born with? Well thats what she’s asking here. Are we born with it or can we work hard to learn and develop.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is both. 

Lets consider musical ability as something that we learn and develop through hard work. If we think about learning to play the piano, it is (amongst other things) a mechanical or physical process. We are physically pressing down those little white keys. Surely if we can all learn to walk, type, write, all of which are mechanical or physical processes,  we can all learn to play the piano, another physical process. As Shinichi Suzuki says in his book ‘Nurtured by Love’ (another one to add to the list!)

“We are all born with natural ability to learn”. 

Now lets consider musical ability as something we are born with.

While I do think we all have a natural ability to learn, I also think that we are all born with a unique set of characteristics that determine how highly we might excel.

Let me explain my thinking.

The process of learning to play the piano, while being mechanical, also requires the presence of certain musical capabilities such as a sense of rhythm, pitch, musical memory and the presence of an active or creative imagination.

Some of us will possess a stronger set of these and will naturally develop musical skill more quickly than others, explaining why some people appear to have a more natural ‘flair’ for music than others. Don’t be discouraged by this though, for even the musical capabilities of weakest pianist can be stimulated and developed! Never underestimate the power of a little hard work!