Practice doesn't always make perfect, study finds

A new study has found some people are just born with the right genes.
A new study has found some people are just born with the right genes. Photo credit: Getty

If you've been practising the violin for 10,000 hours and still aren't a virtuoso, chances are you never will be.

New research has cast doubt on the oft-cited claim that 10,000 hours' practice is all you need to master a skill, as popularised in author Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers.

Instead, some people are just born with the right genes.

Gladwell's 10,000 hours claim was based on a 1993 study, which found great musicians had usually practised for at least that length of time, regardless of their innate talent. He cited the Beatles' lengthy stints in Hamburg prior to finding fame and Microsoft founder Bill Gates' access to a computer at a young age as examples.

But researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio say there's a big difference between good musicians and truly great ones - and it's not how long they've been playing. 

They attempted to replicate the 10,000-hour study of 1993, and found no difference in the amount of practice time spent by good musicians and true virtuosos. 

"Less-accomplished players had practised on average only 6000 hours before reaching the age of 20. But both the best and the good averaged 11,000 hours of practice before reaching age 20 - a finding that suggested practice alone could not account for master-level violinists."

In other words, some people can play until their fingers bleed, but they'll never sound as good as David Gilmour or Jimi Hendrix. 

"Among more accomplished, elite performers, [the] amount of deliberate practice cannot account for why some individuals acquire higher levels of expert performance than others," the study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, says. The authors credited practice with only about a quarter of the difference between master instrumentalists and the less-accomplished, as the researchers delicately called them.

The authors of the 1993 research told the Guardian they stood by their findings, saying there was no real difference between the best musicians and the merely 'good' in the new study.