Cross cultural studies,  Music & Education,  Music and development

Musical talent – cross cultural development

Hello Dear Reader,

And a Happy December to you all. For those of you who follow Christmas traditions, like my family, it is a jolly time for trimming the tree and getting all the old decorations out of the loft. In case you were wondering…the lights worked!

This year is especially lovely as it will be baby Penelope’s first Christmas. She watched with eyes the size of dinner plates as we put the tree up and drooled at the sight of the twinkling tinsel and lights. People were right when they told me that this time of year takes on a whole new meaning when you see it through a little one’s world. I can’t wait for the rest of the season to unfold.


Another happy piece of news for me is that my friend Dr. Suse Petersen from the HSLU in Switzerland has published an excellent paper on a hot topic – cross cultural differences in musical ability. In this case, her paper compares the factors and perceptions of musical talent development between Western and Asian settings; you can find it by clicking here.

When teaching music psychology, I regularly find myself wishing there were more papers that investigated  ‘well-known’ findings outside the Western context. It is not entirely surprising that this situation exists, as music psychology is still a relatively young discipline. However, every insight into musical development from other cultures is exciting and particularly in the case of this paper as it goes to the trouble of making a direct comparison. By this method it more clearly highlights the similarities and differences between cultures than if the author relied only on references to the literature for one half of their comparison.

According to Suse (I hope she doesn’t mind me referring to her in the familiar; to call her anything else feels too weird to me!) studies have identified the following beneficial factors for successful musical talent development:

Favorable family circumstances, supportive teachers and peers, promotion programs, and personal characteristics (e.g. personality traits) and abilities (including the idea of innate talent or ‘potential’)

The idea behind the paper is to undertake biography research, not to determine whether the factors above can be found in a sample of Asian individuals (this has largely been done), but to learn whether the act of comparison between Western and Asian students can reveal new insights on the relative importance or ‘value’ of these influences on talent development in different contexts.

Biography research by interview is particularly well suited to the job of assessing cultural context, as the self is naturally influenced by environment. The self tends to be seen as “individualistic” in the West and interdependent or “collectivist” in an Asian or Confucian context. Hence there may be a direct influence of culture on not only the description but also the interpretation of life memories.

In this study 10 Swiss music students and 9 Chinese music students of comparable achievement and stage of education were asked about their personal perceptions of the components that influence talent development, and their views of musical talent in general, as well as their career goals and motivation to continue their music education.

A qualitative content analysis was applied, which used a combined inductive and deductive approach for the creation of categories and category definitions to describe the concepts described by the participants.

The paper breaks the results down into nice to follow simple sections; similarities and differences. I really enjoy it when results are easy to follow – not overcomplicated for the sake of it!!


The two groups offered similar thoughts regarding the relationship with their teacher(s), the relation or influence of genes and environment as explanatory factors for musical talent, and their career goals.


The two groups offered quite different perceptions when it came to the topics of music and peers, music education and talent promotion programs, their relation to their family, and the signification of holistic education and personality development for a musician.

More on differences…

There is a well thought out section in the paper that goes into detail on the nature of the differences above and I highly recommend reading it to fully grasp the important impacts of this paper.

Personally, I was struck by the extent to which the Chinese students described quite isolated music education before University, rarely taking part in ensembles or group improvisations. They seemed to really value this opportunity once it became available.

Also, that whilst all the Swiss students emphasised the importance of holistic education and personality development outside a pure focus on music, only one of the Chinese students voiced such a view. Suse writes:

Due to high pressure and time constraints (e.g., for practice), Chinese students are perhaps not encouraged to explore other artistic, scientific, or social areas to the same extent as the Swiss students during their musical education, and are instead directed to concentrate on content relevant for examinations’.

In sum, whilst the students from the two cultures agreed on many factors and their role in the development of musical talent, there were important differences that indicate a significant divide in ideas and experiences, despite the small sample.

Overall, a fascinating read. As a music teacher (though lapsed for quite a few years now) I found new insights that I will take forward with me. Music educators in both domains would do well to learn about the background and ideas of students who have grown up in a different cultural music education systems as it is likely to have affected not only their educational experiences (and therefore potentially their abilities, at least in the short term), but also the current motivations and influences behind both their self view and their hopes for the future.

If you want to read more about Suse’s research then click here to find her on ResearchGate

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