Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Musical Genius

Many of the composers whose music we study and hear are referred to as musical geniuses. I did a Google search for “music genius” and got 142 million results, which suggests that a lot of people use this expression! But what does it mean? And if we do not regard ourselves as musical geniuses, can we aspire to become great composers?

In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir’s wrote: “One is not born a genius; one becomes a genius;” perhaps one could hope to one day attain this lofty status, but before going further, it would be useful to explore the meaning of this term.

On a side note, the continuation of de Beauvoir's sentence is, “and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.” This (i.e., sexism, as it applies to music) seems an important topic to tackle in a future blog.

What does it mean, exactly?

The term “genius” is is much-used, but lacks a precise definition. Wikipedia tells us that “the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate” (Genius. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 Jan. 2015, from When someone refers to a composer (or anyone) as a genius, we don't exactly know what they mean. Perhaps they regard the composer as being very smart, but since we are talking about a composer and not, say, a theoretical physicist (like Einstein), how are we to know how smart they were?

One understanding of genius relates to intelligence, and specifically to someone of exceptional intelligence. But "intelligence" is a similarly-imprecise concept; IQ tests are designed to measure it, but, as this article tells us,  their validity has been challenged by many. And besides, if we call Bach a genius, it seems unlikely that we do so because we believe Bach would have scored extremely highly on an IQ test (although one can speculate about this possibility); we are presumably referring to his musical genius. But what does "musical genius" mean?

Possibly it means that we are impressed by the great quantity of well-crafted music Bach wrote, and that we find his music profoundly moving, on a level that few have been able to match in musical history. If you have studied counterpoint and tried writing a fugue, you know how difficult it can be to write a good one; if you analyze Bach fugues after having tried writing them, you will almost certainly be blown away by how inventive, and beautiful they are. You might therefore conclude that Bach was extraordinarily clever, and, on that basis alone, label him as a musical genius.

I don’t have a problem with someone holding Bach (or Palestrina, Beethoven, Bartok, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Burt Bacharach, etc.) in such high regard — the more I learn about music, the more impressed I am by the achievements of great musicians in all genres — but I’m just not sure that we all mean the same thing when we call composers geniuses; as stated earlier, the term lacks a generally-agreed-upon, precise definition.

So why do people persist on using this term? My guess, at least as it is used in music, is that it is a way of accounting for qualities that the writer/teacher/blowhard-in-a-bar/etc. is otherwise unable to account for. Perhaps, when we call a composer a genius, we are saying, “I can’t imagine ever having the skill to produce music that is so profoundly moving (or so darned clever, or so vexingly incomprehensible, etc.), and therefore Palestrina (or Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, etc.) was a genius, and you and I are not. Or at least I are not!”

Becoming a genius, in 3 E-Z Steps! 
  1. Work hard (practice). Now work harder!
  2. Be smart.
  3. Find a supportive environment.

Okay, the "3 E-Z Steps" towards genius-hood is tongue-in-cheek, but whether we regard individuals a musical geniuses or not, mastery of music has always been the result of hard work for extended periods (usually decades), with good teachers, familial/community support, AND perhaps above-average intelligence as well. This is an idea suggested by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, in a Psychology Today article entitled: Attaining musical genius: Is practice enough? (17 June 2008), who writes:
“While Mozart may have required lots and lots of practice to produce his great works, his high intellect may have also contributed to his musical genius,”
Kaufman cites a 2007 article by J. Ruthsatz, D. Detterman, W.S. Griscom, and B.A. Cirullo, Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice, whose conclusion may be neatly summarized as follows:

Musical achievement = general intelligence + domain-specific skills + practice

In other words, practice is an essential ingredient, but so are intelligence and "domain-specific" skills. Which you probably knew…

Here's another quote by someone who supports and neatly summarizes this view: “I was intrigued by this term "genius", because as far as I can see it is completely useless,” said Phil Grabsky, director of a feature-length documentary, In Search of Mozart. “What the characters we sometimes call geniuses have in common is drive and determination, often good parenting, and the fact that they are products of the social conditions of their time,' he said. 'All of this was true for Mozart. His talent wasn't simply a gift from God, it was the result of tremendously hard work.” (Source:

…To which I would add, yes, it wasn't "simply a gift from God," but Mozart's talent wasn't just the result of "tremendously hard work" either; not everyone who trains diligently for, say, 10,000 hours, ends up producing work of comparable quality to Mozart's.

→ If this topic interests you, you might enjoy this blog post: "Talent? Skill? What's the Difference?"

Do you have to be a genius to understand how great music works?

Here's some good news: You do not need to be a genius to understand how great compositions work; you just have to make a concerted effort to do this, which develops analytical skills. Indeed, this is one of the main objectives of many music theory courses. Not understanding how a composition works may be the result of not having worked sufficiently to do so, or simply not having developed the skills to do so, rather than being caused by the composition operating on a plane so high that it defies understanding by ordinary mortals. That said, I'm pretty sure that some composers in the 1950's set out to deliberately write music so complex that it challenged the comprehension of ordinary mortals, but that's a topic for a different day.

Do you have to be a genius to compose great music? 

Aside from the fact that the term "musical genius" does not have a generally-agreed-upon meaning (or even, if you agree with the Grabsky quote above, has no meaning), I see it as a problematic term in that it can discourage those who do not see themselves as geniuses from attempting to develop their compositional skills. "Great music was composed by musical geniuses," you might think; "so what chance do I have of ever writing great music, if I am not a genius?"

If such a thought has ever crossed your mind, it might help to be aware of this:
Great composers wrote a lot of not-great music on their way to writing great music. The learning curve for mastery of composition is steep, and every great composer that ever lived took years to develop their "greatness," and it will be no different for you.
"Ah, but what of Mozart," you may ask; "didn't he write great music when he was four, or five, or six?" Answers: No, and no, and no. I discussed this at greater length in "Talent, Skill; What's the Difference?" (apologies for two plugs in one blog post!), but to summarize, although Mozart was indeed a clever and talented youngster, I'm not sure anyone regards music he wrote in the first 17 years of his life as great. Greatness came later. Former New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg went so far as to call Mozart a late bloomer (i'm paraphrasing; he actually wrote that Mozart "developed late"), arguing that few of Mozart's early works, elegant as they are, have the personality , concentration, and richness that entered his music after 1781" [the year he turned 25]. (Lives of the Great Composers, Part 2, p. 103).

It is nevertheless true that some composers —notably Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saëns— manifested great compositional talent early. However, even these composers took years to master compositional craft, albeit fewer years than most other composers (including Mozart) took.

To summarize, "musical genius" is a much-used term, but one whose meaning is not clear, making it problematic to know what exactly people mean when they use this term. It can also be a daunting concept if your goal is to become a better composer, and you are reasonably confident that you are not a musical genius. My suggestion is to not allow yourself to be discouraged by terms like this, and focus instead on becoming the best composer you can become, which, as always,  is done through a combination of hard work, practice, using and developing your intelligence, studying the music of composers you admire in an effort to understand what makes it great, and finding a nurturing environment in which to do this, be it school, a group of friends with similar interests, or retreating to nature in order to compose and study music.
In any great composer's development, not very good music preceded okay music, which preceded pretty-good music, which preceded good music, which preceded great music. I cannot promise that you will write great music, but I can promise that your compositional skills will improve if you stick with it, and it is entirely possible that you have it in you to write great music one day!