Is Genius Bogus?

Everyone Is Musical…

Apotheosis of Handel

Or nearly everyone. Musicality is considered one of the distinctive cognitive characteristics of the human species, and as such it is comparable to the human capacity for language, with which it is closely intertwined.

An important difference between the two is that music is tied to the medium of sound, exists essentially in sound, even if merely imagined; whereas language is not essentially tied to any medium, even if spoken language is the default. It is possible that in its spoken form language shares resources with music in the expressive properties of prosody, or speech melody.

Although we do not yet know precisely which cognitive resources are involved in language, it seems likely that musicality is more composite than this linguistic capacity. It encompasses various capacities, including, broadly: a sense of rhythm, recognition of pitch relations and of melodic and harmonic patterns, sensitivity to the expressive qualities of such patterns, sensitivity to timbre, musical memory, and the ability to link all this to other areas of human creativity, such as poetry, dance, and drama. A person may be musical in one respect, and less so in another.

This complex nature of musicality may be one cause of what may look like a striking difference with language. Every healthy person has a basic linguistic competence; but musicality is a very unevenly distributed talent. It is perhaps telling that there is no word for linguistic competence that corresponds to ‘musicality’.

…But Some More So

Almost everyone is musical; but the fact that musical talent is unevenly distributed cannot be ignored, even if it is more fashionable to downplay this inequality. ‘Everyone is musical’ is a refrain sung in much of the recent relevant literature (psychological, cognitive and philosophical), in protest against a general failure to recognise the value of music, its role in personal health and society, and thus its importance in education.

The slogan ‘everyone is musical’ owes its impact to the ambiguity of the word ‘musicality’. Like a few other neutral terms, such as ‘quality’ or ‘taste’, it tends to be used for ‘outstanding musicality’, as ‘quality’ can be shorthand for ‘good quality’, and ‘taste’ for ‘good taste’ (‘quality food’, ‘a person of taste’). What it means is: everyone has a basic cognitive capacity for music; what it suggests is: everyone is musically talented.

An example of this trend is Michael Spitzer’s ambitiously titled The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth (2021). What is wrong with the Western approach to music is its assumption that “music[ality] is a rare talent, tapering into still rarer genius” (46).

There is no more corrosive and misunderstood concept in Western music than ‘genius’, a notion that doesn’t feature much in the rest of the world. (44)

It is corrosive because it blocks the great majority of individuals from fully developing their musical ability. The musically active child develops into a passive adult listener.

Spitzer elaborates by comparing Western musical practices with those of the Venda people in South Africa, whose communal musical-dancing practices have become a textbook example with John Blacking’s How Musical is Man? (1973). He does this in a chapter oddly titled Against Mozart: The Venda Life. The case of Mozart, an “icon of the West”, serves to show how “corrosive” this Western notion of musical genius is.

What Spitzer discusses, however, is not Mozart’s genius but his reputation as a child prodigy. As such, Mozart is overrated because (1) child prodigies are produced by determined parents and teachers, in Mozart’s case, his father Leopold; (2) Mendelssohn surpassed Mozart as a child prodigy; (3) Mozart might have had Asperger’s syndrome – a question raised and immediately dropped. (Reference is made to a 2015 article).

None of this is relevant to the question of Mozart’s genius, or how “corrosive” the concept is. It just shows (if anything) that being a child prodigy and being a genius isn’t the same thing. What is sorely missing here and elsewhere in this book is anything resembling a coherent, sustained argument; what it offers is a mix of sweeping generalisations and anecdotal evidence.

Different Musicalities

Musical talent is unequally distributed; but given the complex nature of music and the many kinds of music practised around the world, one can be musical in different ways. This raises an interesting historical question: what musical capacities may come to the fore in particular societies, cultures, and eras. One era’s genius could be another era’s mediocrity.

Most striking is the clustering of musical geniuses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the canonical list of ‘classics’, that seems to peter out somewhere in the past century.

This might be a false perception, created by tendentious historiography and the music industry. However, it is more likely that a particular range of talents encountered particularly favourable conditions. These conditions include the state of the art, the tonal ‘grammar’ that had developed over several generations; the elevated status accorded to music in society; the attention given to individual creations (‘works’); and the exalted status of the concept of genius itself, which was closely related to that of ‘classical’, i.e. timelessly exemplary music.

Musical life was also characterised by the participation by amateurs in domestic chamber music, in choral societies, and until the early 1800s, the collaboration between amateurs and professionals. Contrary to the image of Western musical culture as one of expert performers vis à vis passive listeners, in the ‘era of genius’ musical proficiency was widespread in the middle and upper classes.

The Guilt of White Male Music

What may inspire a re-evaluation of the European or Western musical tradition is the awareness that the semi-stability of this Western World is coming to an end. We’re in the midst of an accumulation of crises: overpopulation, geopolitical shifts of power, the threat of global war, destabilisation of democracy, and the inestimable consequences of climate change.

European/Western cultural heritage and traditions are losing ground even within the traditionally Western world, if only, because there are too many cracks in those traditions themselves.

A heightened awareness that the global spread of European musical practices went hand in hand with the eradication of indigenous cultures, might cause one to feel less comfortable with one’s own musical heritage (if one is a Westerner, and a white male at that). It raises the question of the extent to which Western music is compromised by the colonialist-capitalist society that produced it.

‘The society that produced it’ is, however, a blunt and misleading abstraction. Music is created not by societies, but by individuals. At the same time, it inevitably reflects aspects of society, in certain ways; but not in the simplistic and contradictory ways that Spitzer suggests.

The structure of music tends to reflect the structure of society […] The stratified polyphony resounding in Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal in Hampton Court […] is a sonic symbol of feudal hierarchy […]. (22)

The West was much less unified than the other musical superpowers; it was a seething cauldron of languages, cultures and religions. Counterpoint’s war of voice against voice was a perfect symbol of that. (255)

Music reflects aspects of the society in which it was created, at least because making music demands some kind of social organisation. Thus the evolution of the symphony orchestra, evolved from smallish court bands, and its present decline follow the rise and fall of bourgeois society. The Venda’s conception of music as communal activity belongs to a tribal society. Urban societes require specialisation in every field. Specialisation requires skills that may pose a barrier to the individual; but on the other hand, it offers chances to those with a specific talent.

(It could be argued that contemporary media madness limits the scope of professionalism, and favours above all one talent: that for self-promotion.)

It is a different question whether classical music itself reflects capitalist-colonialist values, and I would say: generally it does not. It reflects above all another European-Western value, individualism. I intend the word in its Popperian sense, as opposed to collectivism; it thus involves individual freedom, judgement and responsibility. An appreciation of these values prevents any simple identification of music with social structure. It is this individualism above all which allowed for the past proliferation of musical geniuses: personalities whose creative efforts transcended and transformed established practices.

Spitzer interprets individualism in terms of conflict rather than of freedom, or, as he calls it, of ‘war’: “The history of Western music is a chronicle of war without end” (56). And what made composers warriors is simply that they had no chance to get through puberty properly.

…the great Western composers were aggressive because they never worked out their combative attitude towards musical authority figures through a natural adolescence. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven never enjoyed […] a liminal, teenage phase. (53)

However, they did enjoy a healthy respect for their eminent predecessors (Beethoven for J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach and Handel; Haydn and Mozart for C.P.E. Bach; Mozart for Haydn and J.C. Bach). The nineteenth century is characterised not only by progress and rebellion, but also by historicism and the concept of ‘classical’, i.e. timelessly exemplary music. It was the age in which the past became a continuous present.


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