Are talents genetic or learnt?

Do you enjoy music but are tone deaf? Or wish you could be a master chess player but never played? Where talent comes from might surprise you.

Asked by: Luke Azzopardi, Malta


Both. Some people are born with greater potential, but without hard work and practising their talent will come to nothing. Music is a good example, with some evidence of genetic differences. For example, a study of 500 twins found that 80 per cent of tone deafness is inherited. Another found genes associated with serotonin release, which were related to musical creativity.

Chess is another good example: an analysis of 14 studies of top chess players and musicians concluded that only about 30 per cent of the variation between performers could be accounted for by their hours of practice. In contrast, a study of British musicians found that top performers had practised a lot more, but learned no faster than less skilled players.


A popular theory is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, and there is probably a degree of truth in this. But if your genes give you an aptitude for and enjoyment of chess, maths, music or football, you are surely more likely to put in those long hours.

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