Harry Potter And The Musical Talent

Tommaso Zillio

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You would like to learn how to play an instrument or write a song, but you are afraid that you "don't have it" in you? Are you a musician that doubts his talent? Do you think "talent" in music is a factor at all?

There is a widespread way of thinking that everything related to music or musicians is due to "natural talent": great performer are such because of "talent", as are great composers or songwriters. This view is sometimes furthered by famous musicians that have all the interest to make you believe that they are "naturally" good and special. After all, it builds mystique, and that is an important element of showmanship.

Needless to say, such statements are not only demonstrably false, but also damaging: if you don't believe you CAN learn, then you'll never DO it! I know it well, since these beliefs nearly prevented me to have a career in music. Even after I started playing guitar, I spent years thinking that I was doomed to stay at the "amateur" level because I didn't have any natural talent. If you think this way too, then I urge to read on.

I call the belief that musical talent is innate and the only important variable in musical success "the Harry Potter theory of musical talent", because it implies that musicians and composers are like wizards in the Harry Potter novels: they have special innate musical powers granted from birth, and different from "normal" people.

By framing it this way, of course, I hope to show you how ridiculous all that is and how you should not let such misconception stop in learning how to play and write music. So let's see the basic tenets of the Harry Potter theory of musical talent, and how they are actually false in reality.

"Music Is Created By Musical Wizards"

If you ever thought that "it is not possible to learn to be creative", then this describes you. You think that there are two kinds of people: the "wizards" that can create music at will, and the "muggles" (non-wizards) that can't. Implicit in this is the belief that people can not learn to write music: either you have it or you don't.

In reality, creativity (the ability of expressing feelings in artistic ways) is a learned skill. Not only it can be taught, it is in fact *routinely* taught by competent music teachers. There is nothing mystical in this: self-expression is a skill that gets better with exercise like many others.

"Wizards Discover Their Powers The First Time They Try To Write Music"

So how do you know if you are one of the chosen ones? Simple: you try to write some music. If the result is the modern equivalent of Beethoven's "fur Elise" then you are a wizard. If what you wrote is of lesser quality, then you are a muggle. "Natural talent" doesn't need training.

The reality is that the very first songs you write are most likely not going to be good. Like everything else, you have to learn how to reach your full potential and most of the learning is done by trial and error.

"Muggles Can Maybe Learn To Perform But Never To Compose"

Of course, some limited powers are available to muggles. After all while Harry Potter could make a car fly, muggles can travel via airplane: not only wizards can fly. So, even poor non-magical people can succeed in the inferior task of learning how to mechanically play an instrument. But they will never be able to probe the depths of creativity and write original music.

This misconception exists because learning to play an instrument with at least basic proficiency is a prerequisite to being able to compose. In fact, most composers write "at their level": the better they are as players, the more challenging their compositions. And while it's true that some performers never compose, this is not due to a law of nature but simply to the fact that they never learned how to compose, due to lack of interest or opportunity.

"Muggles Are As Good As Listening Music As Wizards Are"

That is the other side of the coin. First we put "musical wizards" on a pedestal by making them special and making their abilities innate. But then the muggles take their revenge, and they state that they are as good as wizard at listening, evaluating, and criticizing music.

Sadly to say, the answer here is the opposite of what you might think. Trained musicians and composers can hear music better than your average listener, and they can enjoy a wider spectrum of music. This means that people with trained ears ARE more competent in evaluating and criticizing music (that is, they can spot "problem areas" in a song and can make them better).

This seems to be kind a controversial point, as everybody wants to have the "right" to say what music they like and what they don't. Well, nobody will take this away from you, but I can tell you that people with trained ears tend to be surprisingly convergent in their tastes and judgment of music. You take the conclusions you want :-)

But HOW Can I Learn To Play/Write?

The best way to learn is by the time-honored procedure of finding a teacher and hire him to be your guide. To make sure to pick the right teacher, make sure you interview him and ask him what he thinks of natural talent. If he regurgitates to you the Harry Potter theory of musical talent, then jump on your broom and fly away, in your quest for a better magical mentor :-)

NOTE: this article was inspired by a comment of a person that goes by the internet alias of "Komponisto". I was not able to contact him, but if he ever read this article he has all my thanks.

Now, if you want to be a musical magician too, check out this nifty course that will be better for you and your playing than a few years at Hogwarts: Master of the Modes.

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