31

If you look at the winners of international music competitions, or the biographies of famous musicians (Liszt, Chopin, Paganini, Mozart), there is one thing they all have in common that really stands out: they began playing at a very early age. I mean like 5-10 years old.

I can't but help wonder if certain parts of the brain are developed during this period of growth that cannot be easily developed later in life. It's kind of like learning a foreign language; people who learned many as a child can easily be fluent in all of them. However, it's very difficult to become fluent (and almost impossible to eliminate an accent) if one learns new languages later in life.

So is there evidence to support my claim? And are there any famous musicians that began playing later in life, e.g. over 20 years of age?

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    Or could it be that a talent was discovered in these children very early, and capitalised upon? There are probably many children who were encouraged (forced?) to learn early in life, who didn't make it. – Tim Dec 3 '14 at 9:30
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    What is your definition / quantifier of "Advantage". i.e. how do you measure it? i.e. Precision/How Quick to Sight Read/Album Sales/Awards for Creativity/Number of Standing Ovations or Calls for an Encore??? I could list amazing musicians who started late but I need to understand what your definition is. If I listed a famous musician who started late what's to stop you saying "That doesn't count because..." – Dave Engineer Dec 4 '14 at 10:35
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    I see the opposite; lots of people who see me carrying my guitar case it whatever and tell me "I took lessons as a child, but I haven't played in years". There are times I don't play for weeks, I have a life and other interests, but years without making music? Nothing makes me sadder – Dave Jacoby Dec 4 '14 at 12:09

11 Answers 11

27

I'm reminded of what my mother once told me. Music is not competition. Leave the racing to the horses. Having taught children myself and having lived in a house of teachers for 22 years I can tell you sometimes it is refreshing to be able to talk to your pupil like an adult.

You are constantly running the proverbial mine field when trying to teach children. Begging, pleading and the occasional yelling is all part and parcel of getting often lazy children to do what it takes to become good at music.

So in the end if you are a grownup and listen to your teachers and put the hours in you can become perfectly proficient musician in a lot less time and effort than which is the case most of the time with children.

I believe that the attitude and work ethic is much more vital to your success in life and in music than when exactly you started training. That being said there is off course those who began early, listen to their teachers and work extraordinarily hard at perfecting their craft. Those are usually the ones that you hear about.

12
+100

This answer is based on a lecture from Manfred Spitzer, a German psychologist and university teacher.

He said that for example, the part of the brain which controls the left hand is significantly larger in the brain of musicians (in this special case violinists) who started practicing at a very early age than in the brain of non-musicians or violinists who started at a later age. This was as a result of very extensive exercise.

Furthermore, he explained that every action we learn (seeing, walking, doing music) has it's own learning "window". That means that during that window we can learn this specific action significantly better than outside this window (which does not mean that we are unable to learn it, but it is just harder). So, as far as I can remember his lecture, he told that the window for learning music is opening very early, and closing later. So, if you start at an early age with playing music, you can use more of this open window to practice. If you start later, this window closes sooner, or has already closed, so you can't learn as much or as easily anymore.

Note: This answer is based on this book: http://www.amazon.de/Mozarts-Geistesblitze-unser-Gehirn-verarbeitet/dp/3902533005/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418287909&sr=8-1&keywords=Mozarts+Geistesblitze

7

It's an open question, and it will likely be a long time before there's a concensus. But given that there's a lot of interest in this, and that there are precious few poster childs for the unlimited human potential side, I at least is firmly in the "incontestable advantage" camp.

Given the vast amount of people in the world, and their differing circumstances, one would think that there would exist talented people, who did not have the opportunity to pursue their interests until adult age. They would then attack their subject with extreme gusto, and come out amazingly skilled. This would prove a lot of people's points, so they should rise to notability. The absence of such cases is telling to me. There would have to be a lot of them, even, to convince me.

  • The logic in this answer is depressingly difficult to fault. I'm sure there must be examples of excellent musicians that did not start learning until later. Perhaps they are there and quietly playing to themselves... I mean that an 18 yr old is free to attempt a career in music compared to a 40 year old who probably have more financial burdens to worry about (I'm grasping at straws because I don't want to believe this answer is true). – CurlyPaul Dec 12 '14 at 17:49
5

I don't have a source handy, but I believe that whole "impressionable age" (or whatever it was called) theory has been debunked. There is no cutoff age after which learning is any harder. However, I do believe there is a psychological factor that shapes confidence and comfort, and I'll use myself as the explanatory example:

I started piano at age 4, young enough that I don't remember my first piano lessons (and that entire first year or so is hazy) and I don't remember what it's like to not know how to read music. I certainly remember not being a good sight reader and taking a long time to get even simple lines under my fingers, but I don't remember looking at a music staff and not knowing what the lines and dots meant. This is pretty much exactly how I'm sure nobody really remembers what it's like to not know how to read or speak. To my memory, reading music and being able to play piano (to some degree) are things I've simply always been able to do. And that gives it a sense of innateness that will be lacking in those who started later.

Now, that isn't a superpower, and anyone that's also been playing for 23 years can easily have the same amount of skill as me (and to be honest, probably more). But the fact that I've simply "always been doing it" gives me an extra degree of comfort and familiarity around music. How much that's worth is up for debate.


I can't name you any famous musicians who started later in life off the top of my head, mainly because I'm not familiar with the backgrounds of most musicians. However it is certainly true that most of them got started young. Really though, I would say this is a matter of time and experience and not any kind of advantage specific to starting young. A 30-year-old musician who started at 5 vs. one who started at 20 is just not a fair comparison. Combine that with the fact that there are far more musicians than there is room for professionals, and the ones that started young are naturally going to bubble to the top much more frequently than those who didn't.

5

I can't answer whether there's an advantage psychologically, or whether there's something about being 5 that means you learn more quickly than when you're say 20.

But there are circumstantial advantages : I learnt to play guitar at around 19-20. I became what most people thought was "pretty good" quite quickly.

The reason : obsession. It was a summer holiday between college and university, and I was utterly worn out mentally. Learning guitar was just the kind of therapy I needed - so I threw myself at it- several hours a day- and it worked.

I would guess that children (say 5 - 17) have enough time on their hands to do this, and are often encouraged to study music especially if they show an aptitude, so it's kind of built-in. If playtime is used playing music (because said kiddie wants to) then the learning will at a huge rate.

I think for a lot of adults this opportunity isn't so easy. There are other commitments - studies, work, family etc which mean while you can be an enthusiastic student, you can't dedicate hours at a time, or days, to it. Or more accurately : You can, but perhaps a lot of people just don't.

One other difference in the way kids learn is repetition, which is why a lot of them are so good at video games : they'll try something and if it doesn't work, they'll repeat it again and again until they succeed or see a change - like a tricky level on a game, or mastering some element of playing an instrument. An adult is more likely to get bored/frustrated sooner, probably again due to a time constraint or other outside influences, meaning it may take longer to get there.

That said, I don't think either of these points directly imply that kids learn in a way that makes them inherently better at something than if starting as an adult- it's just the way they go about it, and the opportunities available.

One other factor is the obvious one: time. Two people learn guitar .. one starts at 5, the other at 20. When they're both age 30, the 5 year old has 15 years more experience.

2

Well, correlation and causation may strike again. Yes, there are plentiful examples of child prodigies growing into renowned composers.

However, I never heard of a renowned composer with a childhood history of being forced to play some instrument regularly.

Those musicians became what they were because you'd have had a hard time to force them away from music. They were not as much "disciplined" as they were obsessed.

Obsession has more lifetime to work with if it strikes early. And it has more unformed mind capacity to gobble up. And it also "helps" if you have nothing else to turn to when fatigue strikes at some point of time.

But 20 years of discipline still are no match to 2 years of obsession.

1

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers goes into this topic quite deeply. It's an excellent read and this piece and his other works might provide you the answers you are looking for.

Here's the gist: musician who began playing/practicing at a younger age obviously have more time behind their perspective instruments. Malcolm Gladwell believes in the "10,000-hour" rule, an idea proposed by K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson spent the majority of his life researching expertise. Musicians who start playing at a young age usually reach the 10,000 hour marker by the time they are 20. He goes through various examples like the Beatles, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to name a few.

Take the Beatles for example. Gladwell believes that at the beginning of their career playing/practicing in Liverpool the band probably clocked in over 10,000 hours within a span of 4 years. Practicing 8 hours a day for 4 years gets you well above the 10,000 hour marker. I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Enjoy!

1

I have no numbers to back this up, but I think we are skewing the statistics by looking at adult players who started playing young. It is self-evident that a 49 year old violinist who has been practicing since she was 5 will have practiced a lot more than a 49 year old violinist who started when she was 45. And (although I'm no psychologist) I imagine that the brains of the two players would be different and the (disputed) 10,000 hours of practice to be a genius rule would come into play.

But we could pose the question differently. We could look at all the people who start playing the violin at 5 and all the people who start at 45 and see which are the better players at 49. Again I have no data for this but my own experiences as a child and as a parent are that fighting against the parental directive to play and to practice a musical instrument are a very typical part of a child's life. And those things, boredom, fatigue, rebellion, etc. are psychological (at least in part). So part of the statistics of how good a player is at 49 should be whether he or she plays at all at 49.

I hope that playing as a kid provides a good foundation for going back to an instrument as an adult (that's been my experience), but perhaps there are many more people who are put off for life.

It would be good to see some figures (and of course a photo of a grumpy child forced to practice her piano).

I_won't_practice_another_minute..gif

0

I started singing for my kids before they come to life. Now they are 3 and 5 and both can sing amazingly in tune. Audiation for sure develops at an early age and it is an improtant tool to have as a musician.

I would not say beginning to play early is the key for music success, but beginning to be a musician early for sure it is (not by playing an instrument, but by listening, singing and having fun with music).

Both my kids developed personal musical taste (by choosing among the music I offered them), such a taste is a sign that some audiation is in place. They also sing random melodies by inventing words: this is playing with music. This is being a young musician.

I simply share my small knowledge, but I really believe in what I wrote.

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I think it is pretty safe to say that starting anything at a young age and sticking with it would lead to a higher level of proficiency later in life than if you spent the same amount of time but started later in life. This should not discourage you, however. There are plenty of examples of musicians that started later in life that went on to reach an unprecedented level of mastery on their instrument. My favorite example would be Wes Montgomery, who didn't really start playing until he was 20 years old, and went on to basically do the equivalent of brain surgery on the guitar with his interpretations of bop/jazz, and is now known by many to be the greatest and most influential jazz guitarist of all time.

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    Actually, Wes Montgomery started playing 4 string banjo before he was 5. He developed his ear by learning to play Charlie Parker solos. By the time he was 20 and playing guitar, he already had more than a decade of playing behind him. – piofusco Feb 18 '15 at 21:24
  • Do you have a source for that information? I was aware that he began playing a small toy guitar early in life, around age 12, but what you are saying is that he started learning Charlie parker solos on a 4 string banjo before the age of 5. Here is a quote directly from the Wes wiki page: "Montgomery started learning the six-string guitar at the relatively late age of 20 by listening to and learning the recordings of his idol, guitarist Charlie Christian; however, he had played a four string tenor guitar since age twelve." – LeoStotch Feb 19 '15 at 14:08
-3

The extremely obvious answer is yes. Musicianship is practice and the earlier a person starts playing the more years of practice they will have under their belts. More to the point of your question. I started drumming at the age of 7 and rhythm is now second nature to me. I don't even think about it. Rhythm to me is like a sixth sense. I know a few drummers like me and we are very similar in this space, while drummers who started later in life, even around the age of 15 don't have anywhere near the organic feel that earlier starters do.

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    I didn't downvote, but I think as an answer could you define more about what you mean by "Organic feel" ? that's a bit intangible. – user2808054 Dec 4 '14 at 11:05
  • Anecdotal evidence is fine and well, but it doesn't really provide any other sources than your personal experience. As such, this would have been better as a comment. – Godzillarissa Dec 5 '14 at 8:49

protected by Dom Feb 19 '15 at 10:24

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