Personality Determines Musical Ability? Come ON!!!!!

Recently I read an article in the Huffington Post* about how researchers have found a correlation between personality types and musical ability; that people with “open” personalities seem to possess more innate musical ability, even after the findings were adjusted for previous musical experience. One researcher suggested further study of other factors that could influence musical ability, like parenting, for example.

Well now. That parents influence musical ability is practically a given. But how about teachers? Frankly I do not understand the value of this kind of research. Why? Here’s a quote from the article:

“The researchers noted that their findings may help teachers use information about their students’ personalities to determine who might be most successful in various music programs.”*

Why would teachers want to have such information or even use it? Why should teachers decide who will succeed and who will not before we even start teaching them? Who says that personality types in young people, or in anyone for that matter, are written in stone, immutable and cannot change? And who says that the psychological tests we should administer are right and infallible? And who says that the only reason to study music is to become a performer? And who says that talent cannot be created? The Suzuki Method’s real title is Talent Education and its founding premise is that talent can be created. This means that if person does not seem to have a natural sense of rhythm, for example, he or she can develop it.

As a teacher of some years experience I can tell you that with proper training and parental cooperation, almost any student can develop musical ability. It is INNATE IN ALL OF US just like the ability to speak a language. Some people just need to have this ability coaxed out. If I had a dollar for every “closed” student of mine who now makes a great big and expressive sound, I would be well-off indeed.

The article also says that extraversion may allow singers (and I imagine other musicians) to feel more comfortable in the spotlight. Well, here are a few examples of careers that might never have happened if the tools these researchers are trying to give us had been used: Sorry , Wolfgang, you have a lot of manual dexterity and a pretty good ear but you don’t have the right personality to make it in music performance. Or: Well now, Barbra, you sing really well, but don’t try a career on the stage – your profile isn’t right for it. How about Bob Dylan……And Jascha Heifetz didn’t exactly seem to be a very “hail fellow well met” type either. I have known many different types of people who turned out to be fabulous musicians, but now is some psychological test going to tell us teachers who will succeed and who will not on the basis of personality type – a label someone else is giving us?

I also looked up Openness** and the article I read says that this trait can be changed in people, that people who took LSD became much more “open” after the experience. Really. Well who’s to say that good teaching instead of LSD can’t change that personality factor? Do these researchers not understand that what music teachers do is to help children USE their personalities to do something more important than being just a manifestation of those personalities???

Scientists, please keep your hands off musicians and music students. Music is an art and so it should remain. The one thing you don’t get is that playing music is about getting past the personality – not remaining mired in it – in order to transmit something eternal and basic to the human experience. And the teacher’s job is to help any student do that, open or closed, introverted or extraverted, amateur or profession oriented.

Here’s an example of what I mean: when you hear a CD of a musician, you can’t tell ANYTHING about his or her everyday personality (or even what sex). A musician transcends personality when performing so how do you seriously think labeling a student in advance of his studying music is going to make a difference or even be of help? The act of studying music changes you. It’s been proven that it develops parts of the brain that would not otherwise develop. Who says it can’t change certain elements of a young person’s personality or make those elements superfluous to musical expression?

Teachers, please ignore scientists who are trying to poach on our territory and tell us how to do our jobs. They have NO RIGHT to interfere in our work and meddle in the hopes and dreams of countless music students. They should not tell us to judge anyone. We have to teach a flesh and blood student, not some psychologist’s idea of a student. And having an opinion of our students, especially one foisted on us by others, is extremely dangerous. We cannot reduce human beings to the four letter types in Meyer-Briggs tests (which is perhaps useful only to the person taking it or someone in corporate Human Resources, but not to decide whether or not a person should study music), or to the “big five” personality characteristics. Human beings are far more complex than this and HUMAN BEINGS CHANGE. If you want to be a musician badly enough, you will find a way to overcome whatever aspect of your personality, if any, that may be holding you back. The annals are filled with stories by teachers about less talented (perhaps “closed” and introverted types) who by dint of hard work, desire, and ambition overcame technical and musical problems and went on to have excellent careers in music.

In essence, my plea is to allow us the chance to be who we are without a label and without anyone deciding for us what paths we should follow according to a psychological test based on little more than 7,000 participants. Psychologists must have their fun and researchers have to prove their worth and that they deserve research grants, but music students, musicians and above all, teachers don’t need this kind of help.

In fact, do yourselves a favor, teachers, and don’t read the article. Maybe not even this one, either.

Post Author: Eloise Hellyer


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17 May 2016

2 thoughts on “Personality Determines Musical Ability? Come ON!!!!!

  1. Bob Lucas

    Great article! Over the years, we have seen many students of all personality types benefit greatly from private music lessons. We would never pre-screen students based on some idiotic personality test!

    1. gipsika

      Exactly! And the personality that wants to sing and the one that wants to play violin don’t necessarily even have much in common!

      I have students who progess fast because of careful, diligent practice; they tend to be introverted! And others who don’t practice as much but produce more easily due to extroversion – they are sometimes tough to nail down for practicing! In the end who sounds better? It really is hard to tell, but mostly the answer can be found in “he who practices most, wins”.

      “Talent” only goes so far. Dexterity, rhythm, accuracy – all these can be trained, and only those who apply the training, get to the goal post.


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