The Problem with Geniuses

By: Sara Haefeli (Ithaca College) //

Our monolithic history of Western classical music is largely a story about the great composers, many of whom are described as geniuses. The label has convinced many that we can’t enter the inner circle of musicians and composers. It is an elite cadre, and the chances that a new member will be admitted seem slim. For trained musicians, this focus on the genius reinforces a vague notion that they can’t (or shouldn’t) compose, but the construct is powerful for non-musicians as well. It makes the act of composition seem impossible and blocks many from moving beyond the practice of distracted listening. We don’t think we know enough to be structural listeners.  

Princeton University philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie discovered that the idea of genius had a powerful effect on the gender gap in specific academic fields. According to her research, women and African Americans “are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.”1 She describes this innate talent as a special, unlearnable “spark”—the kind of spark evident in the work of a genius. Leslie focused specifically on STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math), but her findings can also describe the field of music, where many believe that success is a product of innate talent.

The stereotype of the solitary genius disempowers women and minorities who do not see people of their gender or ethnicity included in the canon of great composers (see Kendra Leonard’s essay, “Women Can’t Do That”). It also disempowers those of us who don’t believe we have that special spark. Not only have classical music institutions taken composition out of the hands of the majority of the population, they have also taken it out of the hands of performers—most of whom are trained to interpret music, but not to create it.

Classical music institutions have similarly made listening the act of a specialist. Amid the growing concert music scene, we’ve created an unfriendly place for anyone who feels they can’t fairly rub shoulders with geniuses. My heart breaks a little every time an audience member prefaces a congratulatory remark with, “I don’t know anything about music, but…” They’re enthusiastic about classical music and they know more than they suspect, but the bar has been set so impossibly high they think they can never really know enough to be even a proficient listener.

How Can We Do Better?

Focusing on the composer as a solitary genius belies the nature of music making as an essentially social act. When we work to understand the social contexts from which great works of music arise, we can engage with it in a way that is both empowering and inclusive. In a similar effort to take poetry out of the hands of the elite, Howard Bloom argued that “if we do not exist, then poetry cannot exist.” This is especially true of music, which is essentially an activity, not an object (see Andrew Dell’Antonio’s essay about Christopher Small’s verb musicking and active listening.)

The creative networks of individuals who participate in the production, performance, distribution, and preservation of any art work are fascinating—just as fascinating as a single genius. (The sociologist Howard Becker called these networks Art Worlds.) Music is particularly dependent on vast networks of people, many of whom are overshadowed by a “genius” composer, conductor, or soloist. In jazz and rock studies, however, a study of “the scene” is one of the most important aspects of the music and is often much more compelling than a study of any one person. Some classical music scholars like Christina Bashford have taken a cue from their colleagues in jazz and rock studies; Bashford, for example, studies the concert life of nineteenth-century London.

One way to debunk the notion that one has to have that special “spark” in order to create music is to ask people who don’t normally compose or improvise to do exactly that. Experimental composers have a lot to offer in the effort to open up the field of music. John Cage said that “the masterpieces of Western music exemplify monarchies and dictatorships.  Composer and conductor: king and prime minister.”2 He was critical of the musical canon and the idea of the genius, and he wrote pieces like But what about the noise of crumpling paper… (1985) that embraced all sounds, not just musical pitches. Cage hoped that this philosophy might serve as a metaphor for more inclusive, non-hierarchical music making.

Cage’s younger colleague Christian Wolff wrote music that was even more accessible—and political. In the 1960s, Wolff was concerned that the esoteric music of the avant garde didn’t have anything to do with the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War going on around him. He wanted his music to connect with people (trained or untrained as musicians), and he wanted it to make a political statement. He wrote a number of compositions that use prose instructions instead of traditional notation, designed for inclusive music making. Two of the most interesting are Sticks and Stones, both from the late sixties. You can find the instructions for both in his Prose Collection.

Participating in the creation of music—as suggested by the experimentalists—might open doors for all of us to listen in a new, more inclusive, empowered way. Once that door is opened, we start to realize that none of the “geniuses” were born that way. They were all trained, products of a specific time and context. It’s not a special “spark” that made their music, and we don’t need to be geniuses to listen.

For Discussion

  1. Why do we enjoy a history of geniuses, even when we are disempowered by their greatness?  
  2. Perhaps the atmosphere of exclusivity and reverence surrounding classical music and its geniuses serves a purpose. What might that purpose be?
  3. Is there a value in looking back at contemporaries of the historical geniuses and examining their work? Or looking for underrepresented composers? Or comparing composers who were revered in their time vs. those who weren’t revered until much later? Is there a distinction between people labeled as “genius” by contemporaries and people labeled as “genius” much later on?
  4. The visual arts and literature are taught with a similar focus on genius creators. Does the focus on genius in these fields have a similar effect on would-be creators and consumers?

1 Sarah-Jane Leslie et. al., “Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines.” Science 347 no. 6219 (January 2015): 262-265.

2 John Cage, “The Future of Music” in Empty Words (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979) 184.

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