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Does Nature or Nurture Determine Musical Ability?

New study is the first to find brain structure in infants predicting musical aptitude
Baby playing musical instrument

There has been much research about the positive effects of musical training on the brains of adults. Scans have identified differences in brain structures between musicians and non-musicians, including neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change and adapt, creating new neural connections in response to life experiences. However, far less is known about what might exist in the brain a lot earlier, prior to any formal training.

Now a new study is the first to uncover neurobiological predispositions for musical talent — in infancy.

“There are pathways in the brain that are known to be really important for musical training that have been suggested to develop over time in response to musical training,” explains Jennifer Zuk, a HGSE graduate and co-author of the new paper published in Developmental Science, “and so, it is interesting that we're actually seeing these specialized pathways that are evident even before the formal onset of musical training.” 

Key findings:

  • Early aspects of brain structure in babies can set the stage for later success with music.
  • The authors, who conducted their study at the Gaab Lab at Harvard, found structural networks in infants’ brains, linked to some of the differences that were previously only observed in the brains of musically trained adults or much older children.
  • Both nature (a predisposition for music) and nurture (musical training) are believed to “establish a neural foundation for musicality,” according to the report. The researchers write that they observed structures in the infant brain that “may serve as a scaffold upon which ongoing musical experience can build.”

Five takeaways for parents and caregivers:

1) Both prenatal and postnatal experiences likely shape a child’s musical aptitude.

It is unclear if the changes observed in the infants’ brains were because of genetic or environmental influences, such as parents singing to their babies and exposing them to music generally, because the study did not address these factors. However, the researchers believe that early musical experiences, when young brains are rapidly developing, are important and play a role in shaping subsequent musical ability.

2) Both nurture and nature shape musical development.

Babies with musical tendencies will still need musical training and experience later on to flourish.

Nadine Gaab, associate professor of education at the HGSE and co-author of the new study says, “We think there is an interaction between maybe a predisposition, like a certain brain scaffold, but that the environment needs to provide the necessary input in order for brain structures to develop in a certain way, which then may lead to better musical performance.”

3) How an infant’s brain appears as a baby doesn’t dictate how musical the child will be long term.

Certain brain structure “may be associated with predicting how quickly or how easily one is able to learn musical skills, or perhaps even set children up for success in being able to process musical sounds in a certain way,” says Zuk, an assistant professor at Boston University.

4) Kids who don’t display musical predispositions in infancy are not doomed to failure.

“I think we might be looking at a possible advantage or a tendency to be successful in one domain, but that doesn't mean that even if you don't have this advantage that you won't be successful,” Zuk explains. “It may just mean that path to the learning process will look different for these kids.”

5) Music should be enjoyable.

Parents shouldn’t see music as a chore or something that they have to do, says Gaab. Music should be something that is joyful and that families can use for play and to connect with their babies.

Next steps:

The researchers relied on a small sample size, with minimal socioeconomic variation. Twenty-five infants from the Greater Boston area were selected for neuroimaging, from a larger existing longitudinal study that was already tracking brain and language development. Follow-up assessments of musical aptitude — tonal and rhythmic abilities — were conducted when most of the children reached kindergarten. 

The researchers say further studies, with larger and more varied socioeconomic sample sizes and more frequent brain scans, are needed to understand genetic and environmental impacts on infants’ brains and subsequent musical development.

Neurobiological predispositions for musicality: White matter in infancy predicts school-age music aptitude is co-authored by Jennifer Zuk, Jolijn Vanderauwera, Ted Turesky, Xi Yu, and Nadine Gaab.

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