All Stories Why the 10,000-Hour Rule is Wrong and Why We Love it Anyway

By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Are great musicians born or made? Is the making of a master violinist in their nature or nurture?

Citing a 1993 study in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that the thing separating a novice from an expert of any craft was 10,000 hours (roughly 416 full days) of what psychologists call deliberative practice.

In a 2007 follow-up, the original authors of the 1993 case study argued that the “distinctive characteristics of elite performers are adaptations to extended and intense practice activities that selectively activate dormant genes that all healthy children’s DNA contain.”

Essentially, some inherent talent might help a novice musician start faster than their peer, but during that 10,000 hours of improvement, talent is irrelevant. Since that 1993 case, many studies have come out refuting the idea the idea that genes have no role to play, including two this summer.

Swedish researchers who looked at music ability and practice habits of 10,500 members of the Swedish Twin Registry published a study in June that concluded genes played a major role in music proficiency.

Another study published in July looked at meta data from 88 separate studies on practice in fields including music, sports and games.

“There have been [many] studies over the last 20 years, and we thought if we can get all of these and perform a meta-data analysis, we could see how much deliberative practice explains [differing performance levels],” said Brooke Macnamara of Princeton University.

Macnamara — who worked with David Hambrick at Michigan State University and Frederick Oswald at Rice University on the meta data study — said the 10,000-hour rule has become very pervasive and popular since Gladwell wrote about it, but it has started to push out other scientific literature on other factors psychology often looks at as predictors of performance.

Showing just how popular the topic has become, Macnamara and her peers found 9,331 potentially relevant articles and studies — including one researcher who looked at deliberative practice in dogs — before narrowing it down to 88 that had relevant data. In the end, they found that deliberative practice accounted for 21 percent of the variance in musical performance levels, leaving 79 percent the result of other factors.

That result was lower than games, which attributed 26 percent of performance levels to practice, but higher than sports, which attributed 18 percent of the variance in performance levels to practice.

The study’s results largely confirmed what a lot of research on practice and performance ability has concluded. Practice is very important, but it isn’t everything. Still the argument that practice is in fact everything is persistent in popular culture. In addition to Outliers, the 1993 study that made this case has been cited in books such as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s SuperFreakonomics and Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

“Maybe it's culturally based to some extent. I think it's a very American kind of idea that, ‘just work hard enough and you can achieve anything,’” Macnamara said. “It's very egalitarian, so people really like that idea.”

Even as we celebrate the gifted natural or exalt the child prodigy, it is a reassuring idea that hard work equitably lowers barriers. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the highly fictionalized version of Antonio Salieri brimming with the rage of divine injustice as he looks up at the genius Mozart in the movie Amadeus, knowing his hard work won’t get him to that level.

So what makes up the other 79 percent of variance in music performance levels? Macnamara said that is hard to measure.

“There are other [experience] factors such as the kind of feedback they receive,” she said. “There's going to be intrinsic motivation and external motivation that will play a factor, and then there will be generally what are considered to be highly heritable traits: cognitive capacity or intelligence.”

One thing deliberative practice doesn’t include is the learning experience of a music competition.

“We think that probably is often important in someone's success,” Macnamara said. “If they've had the performance pressure of playing, probably the next time they need to perform [under pressure] they'll do better.”

Predictability is also a significant factor in predicting the importance of practice. If a task remains relatively identical in performance as it was in rehearsal, deliberative practice is likely to lead to more measurable improvement.

“[In] sight reading performance, practice is obviously still important, but authors [of studies on the topic] found that factors like working memory capacity also play a role,” Macnamara said.

Practice undoubtedly is important, but Macnamara’s meta-data analysis and numerous studies with similar findings start to put the 10,000-hour rule claim to bed. In all likelihood the making of a great musician is a blend of both nature and nurture.

“To say that genes have zero role to play is unlikely,” she said.