Study Suggests There Is Not A “Sensitive Period” For Developing Musical Skills

By Emma Young

Mozart famously started playing the piano and composing while still a young child. But if he hadn’t started musical practice then, would his future achievements have been as impressive? Is there, in other words, a “sensitive period” in which the brain is especially susceptible to musical stimulation, and during which a person must start to acquire musical skills in order to achieve their full potential — as is the case for visual perception, say, or language acquisition? There has been a lot of debate about this, but now a major new study of professional musicians and identical and non-identical twins in Sweden suggests not. 

The 310 musicians studied by Laura Wesseldijk at the Karolinska Institute and colleagues were all either professionally active or students at a music college. They were aged between 27 and 54 (to match the age range of the twin sample) and had started musical training between the ages of two and 18. These participants reported on when they started that training and how many hours a week they had spent in music practice up to the age of 18, as well as in adulthood. Their musical aptitude was measured using an online test of ability to discriminate pitch, melody and rhythm. They also reported on their level of musical achievement, giving details of how many works they had composed and had performed, any radio or TV recordings, and any music awards, for example.

The twin data came from the Swedish Twin Registry. Some 7,786 twins reported having played music at some point in their lives, and of these, 4,814 had taken the same musical discrimination test, and 4,887 had provided information on their musical achievement (giving details of any compositions and amateur performances, or awards, for instance).

The team did indeed find that for both the professionals and twins, those who’d started their musical training before the age of 8 went on to develop greater musical aptitude and higher levels of achievement.

However, when the researchers took total lifetime hours of practice into account, only the link with musical aptitude remained — and it became limited. Starting training at a younger age was associated with better pitch — but not rhythm — discrimination. (This tallies with some recent work finding that children who received musical training before the age of 7 did better on melody, but not rhythm, tests than children who’d started their training later.)

And when the researchers looked more closely at the twin data (by considering, for example, pairs of identical twins who had started musical training at different ages, and data for identical vs nonidentical twins), they found that the association between starting training earlier and doing better later could be fully explained by shared genetic and environmental factors . That is, there was no need to invoke a “sensitive period” to explain why kids who start musical training in early childhood tend to do better later, but instead musicians (professional or amateur) who start tuition earlier and do better on the tests later may have benefitted from inheriting “musical” genes from their parents and from growing up in a musical environment at home. Their parents may have been better able to spot and foster musical talent in the children, and organised tuition for these children at a younger age, which made for more lifetime practice hours.

In fact, the new results “provide little direct support that early training has a specific, causal effect on later performance and achievement,” the researchers write.

There are other fields — notably sport — in which it’s also been suggested that there’s a sensitive period for training in childhood, to maximise later performance. However, findings in this area have been mixed, too. Some studies that have found a benefit to starting early have failed to take into account total lifetime hours of practice, the researchers point out. One 2017 study of athletes even found that those who’d won medals had specialised in their main sport significantly later than non-medallists (though they had been involved in other sports for longer).

In the field of music, starting early is clearly associated with better later performance. But if you’re worrying that perhaps you’ve missed a critical window of greater brain responsiveness for your own child to start musical training, the lesson from the new work seems to be: don’t.

Why Is an Early Start of Training Related to Musical Skills in Adulthood? A Genetically Informative Study

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest