Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Reconsidering the Role of “Intelligence” in the 10,000 Hours Needed for Mastery

The pursuit of mastery has been a popular topic in recent years, with plenty of research and information being presented in books like Outliers. The basic assertion of the mastery research is that to become a master, one needs to do 10,000 hours of practice. Studies have been done on chess masters, musicians, and even youths who grow into soccer pros. Part of the research on the process of mastery has been the assertion that high intelligence is of little or no help to the process after a point.

Now, there is research to counter that assertion. New research indicates that intelligence does indeed play a role. An article titled, “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters” appeared in the New York times about this research. To quote the article:

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation.

Not surprisingly, there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.

Read the entire article here:

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  1. Lynn A.

    A “working memory capacity” is an interesting discovery. It makes sense that intelligence is involved. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect, intelligent practice makes perfect.

  2. Absolute Music

    Right Lynn A.
    Practice does not make perfect. Perfect, intelligent practice makes perfect.

  3. Ron

    I read the original article as well. I think it is rather weak and sidesteps the issues at hand. What is this definition of “working memory”? Is that the same as the psychological term “chunking”? (See Miller’s Article “The Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus 2”). If so then this merely means that the person can abstract out a bit further. This is akin to a chess player being able to memorize a whole chess board full of pieces vs a non player being able to memorize only 5 to 7 pieces. This is not a sign of IQ but almost a reflex action.

    In short – no low IQ person is going to perform 10K hours of study in a meaningful way and make much of it. But no matter how high your IQ is you still have to put in some time.

  4. Brittany


    See this link:

    It takes you to an abstract for a paper published in the PNAS titled “Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory”.

    There appears to be a correlation between working memory and fluid intelligence. Working memory is short term memory. From Wikipedia: “Fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning is the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic. It is necessary for all logical problem solving, especially scientific, mathematical and technical problem solving. Fluid reasoning includes inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.”

    And this link takes you to a free dual n-back game that helps improve working memory and fluid intelligence:

  5. Ed Pearlman

    This is a very good post and spurs some good thinking.

    I agree with Ron — the study’s argument is a bit weak. It states that there is only a 7% effect from this working memory concept, which is itself somewhat subjective in methodology. It sounds like one of those studies that receive a lot of grant money to study something intuitively obvious and then write it up as scientific. I’m not saying it isn’t worth studying, but there’s a lot more to it than what they decided to focus on in their study.

    As we all know, there is more to practicing than merely doing it. People who dislike playing music or who don’t understand why they’re doing it, or who don’t feel they have much success with it, or who are not very curious about cause and effect — these people are simply not going to be practicing very much!

    Putting in the work, therefore, necessarily requires a certain level of intelligence, curiosity, and emotional commitment, all of which are difficult to measure, and any of which could cause a higher score in one’s “working memory” or “fluid intelligence”. But the scientists have to come up with phrases that sound as scientifically impressive as possible to get respect–and grant money!

    Wikipedia’s definition of “fluid intelligence” is the same thing that can and should be taught to kids in 6th & 7th grades, and some reading programs make an effort to do that. It’s harder these days, though, because of the emphasis on computers, which encourage empirical rather than logical thinking — in other words, just try stuff and the computer will tell you very quickly if you got it right — or just look up your question on the internet instead of bothering to thinking something through logically!

    I would take it all with a grain of salt; it doesn’t much change what we music teachers know as we work with students week in and week out. Pretending that talent or working memory determines someone’s success in music only tends to excuse them from trying, just as the computers are doing for my son and his friends in 6th grade.

    Techniques like the dual n-back game may help improve working memory and fluid intelligence, but I have a much better suggestion for how to improve those things — learning music!

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