Influence of starting age for learning an instrument

I’ve heard that in order to reach absolute top level musical instrument skills, you need to start early, but I wondered if that is true and how early this starting age should be. The paper “Is early music education necessary in order to reach a professional level?“ by Fieke Werner attempts to provide an answer to my questions (by performing a literature study on a collection of studies on the subject).

She came to the following conclusions with regard to starting age:

  • most classical expert musicians started before the age of nine
  • on average the excellent students started earlier than the good students did
  • there have been no reports of children starting ‘too early’

This corresponds with other studies that I found that suggest that there is a certain developmental window when children appear to be especially efficient at learning certain skills.

Of course there are other things to take into account too. Since a young starting age appears to be important to achieve “ultimate excellence” there can be a lot of parental pressure. This raises an ethical question. If the child thinks the lessons are boring, or would rather do something else than practice their instrument, how far can the parents go in pushing the child to continue? I’ve heard about situations where the child is thankful for the lessons later, but that cannot always be the case, can it? Also, apart from starting age there are a lot of other factors that determine musical skill (in the paper for example they also focus on the importance of one-to-one teaching).

Since I discovered my interest for creating music relatively late (and therefore will apparently never be a master musician), I have no personal experience with this. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Anyway, I want to know your stories and opinions!

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2 Responses to Influence of starting age for learning an instrument

  1. janthesuit says:

    Excuse my wording, but I think the concept that people can’t really master music unless they started to learn it at an early age is rubbish.

    Obviously, kids learn quicker, and have the advantage of time. Also, if you’re already very good at music at a young age, you’re more likely to enter the circuit of professional musicians (when you start at nine, you already have nine years of experience at eighteen) – and when you play music day in and day out, you’ll easily master it.

    If I look at some contemporary musicians, there are definitely some examples of ‘musical masters’ who only started playing as a teenager, and became successful later in their lives: Leonard Cohen, K. K. Downing (Judas Priest), Ray Manzarek (The Doors)…

    But hey, that’s just my opinion 😉

    • In another hypothesis, the paper makes a distinction between ‘classical expert musicians’ and popular musicians, implying that the former require more skill and therefore an earlier starting age. No definitive statements are made about that, though. I believe I have to agree with what you say about time spent.

      Apparently genetics matter as well: http://jmg.bmj.com/content/45/7/451.full (“Conclusion: Our results show that there is a genetic contribution to musical aptitude that is likely to be regulated by several predisposing genes or variants.”) But even then, a genetic ‘disadvantage’ might be compensated by spending some more time practicing or by practicing more efficiently.

      Anyway, I think it is a good advice not to be discouraged if a younger person is better than you. Practicing should be fun!

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