You Could Have Serious Musical Potential and Not Even Realize It

If you’ve got a particular personality type, you might be predisposed to be musically skilled. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you’ve had it drilled into your head that “practice makes perfect.” But is that really all there is to it?

According to a new study in the Journal of Research in Personality, your musical ability could also be hinged on something a little more engrained: your personality.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Goldsmiths, University of London, in the U.K., in conjunction with the BBC, put more than 7,000 people through a series of musical tests, including melodic memory and rhythmic perception tests. These were then linked to their scores on a Big Five personality trait test, which examined people’s scores on the traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. 

Among the findings: The trait of openness is a key predictor of musical ability.

“Openness is a tendency to be open to changes in the environment, in ideas, in ways of thinking and in emotions,” David Greenberg, a doctoral candidate at Cambridge and lead researcher on the study, tells Yahoo Health.

Those who have the trait are likely to be more musically able, he says, but what’s most telling is that the study showed a strong link between openness and performance on the music tests — even for people who did not play a musical instrument. This means that there are many people who are primed for music and who have the potential to do well musically, but may be totally unaware of it.

“Depending on their level of openness, they could be really good musicians, even if they were never introduced to a musical instrument,” Greenberg says.

Take the quiz for yourself here. 

The study is also important because it’s the first survey of the links between personality traits and musical ability in the general population, says Daniel Müllensiefen, a team member from Goldsmiths, who developed the music-performance tests. Music psychology thus far has tended to focus on professional musicians and geniuses, he says, but scientists are now beginning to look more at musical ability in non-musicians. 

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Although the research found that training and practice were the highest predictors of musical ability among musicians, personality was “the next best predictor there, too,” Greenberg says. “That means it’s not only about practice. Two musicians could practice the same amount and in the same way, but one may get it easier than the other, and that could be because of their personality types and orientations.”

Of course, the importance of practice cannot be demeaned for those who endeavor to perform music. Maintaining a strict discipline of focused, deliberate practice is vital to fully realizing musical potential, says Don Marrazzo, former director of casting and artistic operations for Glimmerglass Opera and former executive director for Astral Artists.

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However, “I personally think it is extremely important to acknowledge that there are individuals who possess innate musical talent, and people who don’t,” Marrazzo – a bass/baritone who teaches voice lessons and is currently pursuing master’s degrees in voice pedagogy at Penn State University — tells Yahoo Health. “I think there are a number of fairly basic traits, from a purely technical standpoint, that set talented musicians apart from those who are less talented: Possessing a great ear to match pitch; having a great sense of rhythm; an ear for foreign languages; and an extremely creative imagination, which is vital if one aspires to be a true artist/storyteller through music.”

These skills may well be a reflection of inner personality traits (the study also found that the extraversion trait was linked to higher self-reported singing abilities). Indeed, in Marrazzo’s experience, “I have found that the singers with whom I have worked who possess an unusually rich and creative imagination are the ones who ultimately exhibit the greatest sense of artistry by being able to tell a story through their singing, instead of merely singing the musical notes that are printed on the page.”

The link between personality types and musical abilities can help educators guide more children toward music, Greenberg says. “If a child has the openness trait, music can certainly be an avenue that educators can encourage,” he says. “What also typically happens in school is that kids start playing an instrument and then drop off, but knowing personality traits can help guide them toward a musical instrument or activity that may be better suited to them. The important thing is knowing the underlying personality orientation.”

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