Musical Talent – Fact or Opinion?

If you’re like me, music is an enormous (or at least very significant) part of your life.  Finding new artists to obsess over and rave about to your friends is a normal part of your day.  So when you find out that one of your friends hates your new favourite artist, the first question (or exclamation) you have is, “WHY?!”

Why, indeed?  Personal opinion is all well and good, but when you’re talking about an occupation or activity that requires some talent to succeed, is there actually a set definition of “talent” to follow?  I’ve often wondered this when my friends and I differ on what music artists we like, or even who we think is “better” than who.  (Usually, we’re talking about the musical talent of the artist, not necessarily the genre of music that artist falls under, since my friends and I all tend to like the same kinds of music…)

So is talent something you can really measure or even define?  Or is it something that must be purely based on others’ opinion and the parameters of the genre or job description?  I mean, I don’t particularly like screamo rock, but that’s because I don’t think it takes much talent to scream into a microphone at the top of your lungs for four minutes straight.  But then again, I don’t know that genre very well, so I could be missing out on a lot of really great artists who do have a lot of talent…..  I don’t think I am, but you never know.

Or here’s an interesting angle: is our taste in music (specifically our talent-taste, not genre-taste) dependent or at least somehow related to our own musical proficiency?  For example, if we’re tone deaf, does that mean that we can’t hear when other people aren’t hitting the notes perfectly on key?

“She’s pitchy on the high notes too often.”  “He has a weird vibrato.”  “Her voice is too nasally.”  “They don’t harmonize well.”  Are these facts or opinions or both?  And does the answer to that question determine whether that artist is talented or not?

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts!


4 thoughts on “Musical Talent – Fact or Opinion?

  1. Merry Dunn says:

    Talent is in the ear of the listener…

  2. Melanie says:

    Interesting questions. My husband and I agree so completely about some singers who have been deemed “talented” by the marketplace that I think it must be opinion: I love Natalie Merchant’s singing, but he says it’s whiny; he likes CRR, but I find their voices too twangy. Or are you addressing something else entirely?

  3. Cargo says:

    You should have a look at some of the psychology papers on the subject (e.g. google scholar), or for a brief introduction to what we really know (not just opinion) see the wiki sources.

    One of the hardest things to do for some people is to be able to understand or appreciate the technical skill or musicianship of someone they don’t like musically, because IMO, music is very much linked to the emotional areas of the brain. Cultural and other factors (such as behaviour or personality of the artist or their ideology) also play into our preferences -for me one of the supporting factors to why I’ve never liked U2. I do think many people conflate the technical skill of an artist or musician with their personal tastes in music, though there are always going to be examples of musicians who are not talented but wildly popular – I’m sure you can think of an example of a band created by marketing or TV reality/talent show. Some of them will admit it and go on to learn to be good musicians or lyricists.
    Even for the same individual, our tastes change with time and mood. Some music and bands I loved as a teenager I now rarely or never play, some I hated then I like now. I’m different, the world is different, so why shouldn’t my musical taste be?
    I don’t think it has much to do with our own proficiency or talent, just how well we are able to sit back outside of our own ‘opinions’ and tastes to assess the abilities of others. I have no musical ability of my own, my partner sings well, plays cello and piano and we can agree mostly on whether someone is talented – but disagree on whether we like their music or lyrics.
    Interestingly enough, I have a few friends who are music journalists who have to be professional in interviewing or reviewing artists and their work – making sure that their own taste does not influence too much their assessment or article.

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