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!


Adrian Irvine said...

I must admit I have often thought "great music was composed by musical geniuses, so why should I bother?" Having grown up with parents who listened exclusively to the greats of western art music, the idea of ever achieving a level of compositional greatness that is even remotely comparable to the likes of Bach, Mozart, Mahler, etc. seems like nothing but a pipe dream. This post, however, raises some great points about the use of the word "genius" and the truth about how the "music geniuses" of history became worthy of this title. They all followed the "3 E-Z Steps" to compositional excellence, and they all started somewhere. It is encouraging to read that Mozart's true "genius" became evident when he was 25, when he is often imagined as emerging from the womb with manuscript and quill in hand. I wrote pieces when I was 5 too, but they weren't quite as melodious as Mozarts. It makes me wonder where I'd be now if I'd had Leopold around to tell me to write it all down!

This also raises the question as to whether musical genius of any similarity to our traditional idea of it in western art music is still attainable in the 21st century. Many of the elements that contributed to the flourishing of artists at a young age also likely had negative effects on their development of the most basic social skills, and the lifestyles they led would not be considered acceptable with our modern understanding of human rights. Perhaps we are destined to be a generation of late bloomers. Regardless, this post has provided me with some much needed inspiration to stick to my guns, whether I end up as a "genius" or not!

Sarah Bartlett said...

I think it's hard for us to imagine past composers as real people - to try to imagine a composer as virtuosic as Mozart out buying groceries, or walking outside, passing time like we do - we just imagine them as these prolific composers who did nothing but write music and play (However, I acknowledge the work of composers such as Bach, as he did a lot of JUST writing and working). It's hard to imagine these people doing anything besides writing music. What we've got to realize, is that these composers had to think of motives, analyze chord progressions, and rewrite entire sections at a time (however, maybe not Schubert or Bach, since they were, arguably, geniuses). So in our own writing, it's easy to get frustrated and feel like we want to quit because we're not seeing immediate results. But neither did anyone else! Writing is a process. Very rarely does someone sit down and write a symphony in one go. It takes time and effort, proofreading, run-throughs, and arguably some sweat and tears, plus a LOT of time to come up with a finished product that we like and are pleased with. And even after that, we may want to re-write or edit something later. And due to the fact that we can't ask about or view any of our favorite composers' compositional processes, we assume we're failures because we can't write volumes upon volumes of fantastic music in the beginning of our careers.
Personally, I think everyone has some degree of musical talent (even if it's really, really small) and with practice (skill!) one can develop it. Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers focuses on what helps people succeed, and uses musical examples such as The Beatles to prove his point. To paraphrase Gladwell, good circumstances, luck, and hard work, are the formula to success. He coined the idea of the '10,000 hour rule,' in which he states that practically anyone can become a professional at something, should they practice and work at it for a minimum of 10,000 hours. The Beatles, for example, fostered their talent playing shows almost every day of the week when they first started, and were constantly demanded to write new material. They were doing this at the right point in history, and went on to become one of the most popular bands (if not the most popular) at the time, and in history. Plus, they were musically talented, and put in lots of time, playing and writing, allowing them to become the talented musicians they went on to become.
Personally, I think the word 'genius' is kind of lazy; the idea that some people are born with immense talent and some are born with none seems like a cop out. "I can't write music because I'm not talented like Beethoven or Mozart." Well, nobody is really talented like them; no two composers are exactly alike. The key to being a 'genius' (in the context in which it is often used today) is to be innovative and original, which comes from practicing your style and not trying to imitate someone else's compositional technique.

Mitchel Fleming said...

As an aspiring composer, I can connect with this sense of "well I'll never be as good as Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, etc." It is a relentless struggle against your own confidence to be constantly comparing your "meagre" works to the likes of musical canons. I do believe, that instead of comparing your music in a negative fashion to these works of art, compare them in a constructive manner. Analyse famous works and incorporate (maybe not note for note) into your piece. Music is essentially the evolution of old music into new, and one should not feel bad about using the ideas of others to improve oneself. One might say "Ohhh but Mitchel, that's copy-right infringement! That's plagiarism!" Well, yes and no. Plagiarism is defined as "the process of taking someone else's work, or ideas, and passing it off as your own." Legally, there can be discrepancies but by using ideas and techniques perfected by past composers, you are learning and becoming a better composer. If we weren't allowed to use the techniques used by past composers now, it would be the same as car companies not being able to use round tires to roll their car because Ford did it first. So instead of being a detriment to yourself and stifling your creative output, learn from those who came before you improve as a composer.

Duane Andrews said...

When I hear someone mention ‘genius’ these days I tend to think of it as related to an act of super achievement though it has probably become slightly twisted away from it’s origins in the same way that ‘idiot’ has.

‘Music genius’ has it’s own set of connotations which can certainly cast a shadow on any composer at any stage of development but what I like about this post is the idea of how the realization of our potential as composers is not dependant on the concept of musical genius. We simply do our best work and it is what it is. Wether it is what we intended it to be is a different matter and perhaps the topic for another post.

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Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I dislike the term genius, mainly because it implies that musical perfection can exist. Certain aspects can be done correctly or incorrectly, and people can make informed judgments on quality, but no piece or composer can be said to provide the definition of musical perfection. Since the possibilities of music are infinite, every choice as composer makes has infinite alternatives, some better, some worse, and some of no substantial difference in quality. Since music can be so many things, it is unreasonable to say that a given work exemplifies how music should be. There can be great pieces of music, pieces of such remarkable quality that their approval is near-universal, but to call a work or composer “genius” implies a sort of magic that simply doesn't exist. Great works are composed through great effort by human beings; they do not spring forth fully formed from the minds of geniuses the moment they can hold a pen.
In some ways, it almost feels like a way for people to make themselves feel better when they fall short of their potential; if only geniuses can write so brilliantly, then I can be content with my second best work. We may never write like Beethoven, but there is no empirical reason that, given opportunity and investing copious energy, it should be impossible for us to do so. My goal is not to write like Mozart, or Schoenberg, or Bach, or any of the Western canon. My goal is to write like myself, as best as I can, improving as I learn, whether my music is called genius at age 25, age 75, or never. We can learn many things from “geniuses”, but we should strive to be our own composers. Each composer will contribute pieces to the world that Beethoven and Brahms never did, pieces of quality, if not “genius”, and music will be better for it.

Froggy said...
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Anaïs Siosse said...

I feel that the term genius has a large part of subjectivety (individual or grouped). The term genius is a word that anyone can freely use or not to express an idea about a person. A genius can be a genius for someone and not for someone else. We can also compare a genius to another one… can a genius be more genius than another one? At which level does a the word genius starts? I also feel that the term genius as a lot to do with the words discovery and invention. In any field of activities, we tend to always associate a name with an invention. But can an inventor invent something without errors of its antecedents? Is the genius the one who founds the solution or the 100 of people who did experiences before him? Can a genius create without the others? Aren't we all genius? I feel has human we can all create. For me a genius is someone who can create, make errors and work harder to correct them… the development of our creativity is one of the human strengths.

Clark Ross said...

Just jumping in here to say how much I have been enjoying reading all the comments; LOTS of great points being made!

A few responses to specific points:

• If you are a composer or an aspiring composer, you may wish to be regarded as a great genius one day, and this is fine, but how many composers who are known for writing for "less glamorous" instruments such as brass, woodwinds, harp, guitar, viola, etc. — in other words, the huge family of instruments that do not include piano, violin, or cello — are known as musical geniuses? A lot of composers made very respectable livings writing for these instruments, and yet most of us have not heard of these composers, unless we happen to play those instruments.

These composers are often very much appreciated by people who play those "less glamorous" instruments, and in many cases, their compositions will continue to be played long after the composers have passed on.

This is, I would argue, evidence of a successful compositional life, whether or not we choose to use the term "genius" to define these composers.

• Malcolm Gladwell writes about the so-called 10,000 hour rule, but he didn't come up with the idea; it grew out of research by Herbert Simon and Bill Chase (1973), and subsequent research by Anders Ericsson (1973). Also, it is a concept that has been challenged by some (see 10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All, for example).

• I understand the idea of musical genius being an implication that artistic perfection is possible, whereas for many of us, the idea that artistic perfection is even possible is absurd. That said, I think people who use the term "genius" in reference to, say Beethoven, may mean many things by it. Possibly it is an attribution of perfection to Beethoven, but to me it seems more an acknowledgement of how good he was — well beyond the status we ascribe to most other composers — and the sheer quantity of damn fine compositions he wrote!

• But my main observation is simply that I am really impressed with how thoughtful and thought-provoking all of these comments are.

Robert Humber said...

I've certainly been prone to using the term 'musical genius'. For me the classification of a musical genius, especially in the compositional sense, is rooted in creativity. There are countless individuals, past and present, who put in lots of hard work into their craft and had a great ear and musical ability. However, the names that ring clear are generally the composers who found a specific voice. Nothing I've ever heard has had the same colorful atmosphere as the music of Debussy, especially his piano works. In one sense it's just amazing music, truly the work of a very sensitive and clever mind. But on the other hand we must remember that in the late 1800's/early 1900's, nothing else sounded like it (other than Ravel, who had many similar ideas but I can't help but notice that most of his works have a more rhythmic feel with a stronger pulse). Likewise, upon listening for a couple of bars I can usually tell when a piece is written by Messiaen because he possesses a sound that he created and polished as his own. As a known synesthete, his use of ever shifting colors and textures are characteristic through his use of dissonance. Every chord he uses sounds so distinct to his voice that it baffles me how one man could possess such a creative, influential tone. Just listen to the opening brass chorale in his orchestral work "Eclairs sur l'au-dela" for an awesome example of his style of dissonance. This chorale sounds downright otherworldly and I'm not on drugs but I honestly can see the same mountain range, built of sparkling crystals and covered in light aqua green and light purple mist. His music paints landscapes in your mind unlike anything else and when I listen to that piece in particular it really makes me wish I was good at painting. One last example of something that I see as 'musical genius' is 'The Rite of Spring' by Stravinsky. Nothing sounded even close to it (even 100 years later I've yet to hear something comparable). He created a completely unique sonic landscape in the way he molded together diatonicism, bitonality, violent rhythms and shifting orchestral textures. Like, it's a total masterpiece in my mind. I could hear it 1000 times and each time it would be a completely new experience.
All of these people dedicated their entire lives to music and had their share of natural gifts too. What is most impressive to me though is how they heard the music around them and turned different aspects of others ideas into an original thought. All of these people's first compositions probably sounded like they were borrowing ideas from others, but through years of practice and developing their style, they found something new and beautiful. That's what I would call a musical genius!

Josh McCarthy said...

I believe the title of musical genius is definitely earned through hard work, and not simply something you are born with. For me I feel some is a musical genius when they right something I find really, really clever. Something that really stands out to me, be it a flashy piano "riff" virtuosity, or a cool chord progression, or even interesting ways of making the instruments work together. I find I feel this when I listen to music that I just have to sit there in awe of because it just blows me away how somebody actually wrote this... they literally just pull notes oout of thin air and put them together in a strategic way with their own style and then BOOM... beautiful music that leaves me in shock. I've recently listened to Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and I have heard it was good but when I actually listened to it and was amazed by the use of chromaticism and how he portrayed feeling with music. I do feel like these great composers started off not as good as they ended up being, but that's the case with anything isn't it? You start off not knowing what to do, you learn, and then you can do great things, and I find the journey is what is the most exciting. I hope to never stop improving and just keep strutting along this glorious path!

Robert Godin said...

"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" Oh good! Was worried :P

"some composers in the 1950's set out to deliberately write music so complex that it challenged the comprehension of ordinary mortals" And may they all burn in hell for it!!! lol

I think this blog was a little similar to the Talent vs Skill one but with a stronger focus on being in a strong learning environment/practices. Which I strongly agree with. Listening to the music without studying it, can be like looking at a painting from several meters away. Sure you get most of the picture, but you might be important details. Learning the craft of others can never be damaging to your own, it's usually the opposite.

Andre McEvenue said...

I agree that the term genius is often applied liberally to anyone who has excelled at writing music in a particular style. Without being too pragmatic about it, I would say that genius simply means we are in awe of what someone has created and can't comprehend ever doing it ourselves. The average person cannot comprehend or understand why Einstein was a genius, but we all agree he certainly was. And not unlike music, there were many others in Einstein's field (predecessor and successors) who had incredible breakthroughs and significant contributions. Many of these are not household names, nor are they always regarded as geniuses by the public, but their contributions to science were nonetheless important.

Alison Petten said...

I personally have a huge problem with people using the term 'musical genius'. I also have a big problem with people thinking that somebody can be a master of any certain skill without having any prior knowledge, practice or experience. I think that concepts such as this are often used as a crutch when somebody is not progressing at a rate that they are happy with, whether this be in composition, performance, or something completely unrelated to music. It is very easy to say "well, I'll never be as good as ____, and there's nothing I can do about it". I am a firm believer that if you want something enough, and you are dedicated to it, there is truly nothing that can stop you from achieving these goals. I actually find it very irritating when somebody gives up on something they're passionate about because they keep comparing themselves to other people in the same field. Yes, people have different natural abilities and skill levels, but really talent gets you nowhere nowadays. As cheesy as it is, 'hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard' is absolutely true. Anyway, in my opinion, the term 'musical genius' never helps anyone; I think it actually stop people from achieving their goals in the long term.

Erika Penney said...

I don't believe that anyone is a "musical genius". Some people may be stronger and have a better ability at something, but i agree strongly with the three points that;

1. If you work hard, and continue to work hard you, will end up achieving your goals. This way you will become your own genius.

2. Be smart. I think if you keep up with your work, focus, and know when to ask questions it will make everything much easier.

3. Having a supportive environment. I think this is the most important. To be able to focus, and work hard, you need to be surrounded by those who will support you and help you along the way. If you have a great support system, you will hopefully never feel like you're on your own while trying to achieve your goals.

If you follow these three points that you've stated, I believe you will have the ability to become your own musical genius.