Natural Born Musical Prodigy? Maybe

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Video of a 4-year-old Hong Kong boy is making the rounds on the Internet. Watch it for just a few seconds and you'll understand why: He's clearly a musical prodigy. He plays piano like he was performing at Carnegie Hall; at age 4, he hasn't had all that much time to practice.

The adage "practice makes perfect," might inspire people to focus on getting better at a given sport or task, but some research suggests there's more to the equation.

A recent paper, along with other experiments, shows that a person's innate abilities may matter just as much. In other words, some people have qualities that, when combined with practice, make them "naturals."

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The paper's authors suggest the idea contrasts with some popular writers' tendencies to de-emphasize individual qualities in determining success.

Also called "working memory capacity," the ability to use knowledge and adapt to new or distracting situations may separate the really good from the best. Another study suggests that people with higher working memory capacity could process information more quickly.

In the most recent setup, the research team looked at 57 piano players with varying levels of practice experience. Some had 260 hours of deliberate practice, while others clocked in up to 31,000 hours.

Participants were asked to complete tasks that required them to play musical pieces on sight with no prep-time. Of course, people who practiced more did better. But those who did the best also had higher working memory capacities, the authors report.

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The team didn't provide too many details about the tasks or how memory capacity was measured, so it's unclear whether other factors could have accounted for the results. It's also important to realize the paper doesn't imply that a person needs a high working memory capacity to be successful. Rather, it points out that this type of memory plays more of a role than we think.

The findings may answer why chess geniuses have an edge over their competitors, despite both individuals having similar knowledge and experience levels.

Photo by nayukim/Flickr.com

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