Why Musical Genius Requires Apple Pie (A response to Roger Ebert)

Why Musical Genius Requires Apple Pie (A response to Roger Ebert)

Psychology December 18, 2011 / By David Dobbs
Why Musical Genius Requires Apple Pie (A response to Roger Ebert)

Musical greatness, in short, requires eating some apple pie — with several helpings of humble, too.

This article originally appeared at Wired Science

In a typically graceful post, Roger Ebert wonders how prodigious genius, particularly in math, chess, or music, rises so early from the brain:

"It may be that among the countless cells in our brains a process of arrangement and simplification goes on, by which these cells find more and more satisfactory ways to–Communicate? Align? Organize? If they were a random arrangement, could they even “think?” Perhaps our human brain cells have been continuously improving their lines of communication for thousands of years, and that by Darwinian evolution more efficient lines have been tested, and prevailed. It may be that Jay Greenberg is unique, but I think it just as likely that he is simply drawing on access to abilities many of us were born with but have lost track of. Are we born with a vast command of abstract logic, and lose it in the distraction of incoming noise? How possible is it to concentrate on the variations of the Ruy Lopez when our little ears are being hammered with coos and sweetness?"

The Jay Greenberg he speaks of is a 12-year-old composer whose teacher at Julliard ranks on the level of Mozart in his compositional powers: He composes symphonies in his head, and by his own description they arrive fully formed: He hears them, and the complex musical structure beneath is there waiting to be written down.

In the endless and often silly debate over the root of expertise — Is it something inborn or the 10,000 hours of practice ?  — I’m equally intrigued by both the clear extra edge some brains and/or bodies must have at birth and the baroque conversation that goes on in those 10,000 hours as someone masters something.

But while I love this piece and consider Ebert a treasure, I think he stretches a couple things. For one, he overstates the possibility that this sort of talent is more or less hard-wired, and that these people are drawing on something the rest of us lost. Clearly their brains come into the world (after 9 months of obviously productive conversation with the womb) in ways that let them more quickly grasp certain structures and rule systems: the grammars of math, music, language, chess. Atop that foundation they build much faster than the rest of us do and ultimately to a higher plane. But they’re building all the same; they create something we don’t, rather than retain something the rest of use lose.

I also disagree that genius or extreme accomplishment in music (as opposed, possibly, to math or chess) can come just from a mastery of the abstract — that it expresses something agnostic to life’s other experiences. Ebert writes:

"People who know chess well enough to understand it say that some of the best games of grandmasters move them almost to tears. Very well, but they are moved not by emotion but by witnessing an exercise of implacable logic, ideally without a single move that could have been improved upon. Similarly, in the field of mathematics, great was the satisfaction in 1995 when Fermat’s Last Theorem was proved after 358 years. But to solve it you need never have kissed anyone, loved a dog, read Hamlet or eaten a slice of apple pie."

"Nor need Beethoven have done any of those things to write a Beethoven symphony. It is a Beethoven symphony all the same, and attains a kind of perfection in the abstract, regardless of how it is performed, or for whom, or where."

Conceivably he’s right about math and chess, but I think he’s wrong about great music not requiring some extra emotive and experential depth — a genius of emotive understanding, if you will, as well as craft. This lad Greenberg, for instance, clearly possesses amazing powers of composition. But it remains to be seen whether he’ll write with the sort of emotional power that distinguishes the true compositional genius wielded by those such as Beethoven, Bach,  or Mozart — but by Mozart, notably, only after he reached his teens. Until then, Mozart composed and played much as Greenberg does — early, fully, with astonishing musical sophistication (and a lot of practice, probably 10,000 hours by the time he was 12). But he didn’t start composing his more deeply felt works until he was 13 o4 r 14. If he had die at 14, he would not be remembered or listened to today.

Did Mozart become great because he got better at music’s abstract aspects? I’d argue he got great because he added more emotion. Ditto Beethoven. The Ode to Joy, for instance, cited by Ebert as a work of musical genius, was not an early Beethoven work but part of the last movement of his final symphony. Its power rises not just from extreme musical sophistication but from the subtle manipulation of an amazingly simple line  — just a handful of notes — to produce enormous emotional response. The first time you play this line — just playing the main line on the violin or the piano — you can’t believe how simple it is. On the page it looks like almost nothing. Yet in it Beethoven subtly disrupts basic harmonic and  melodic and (especially) rhythmic expecations in a way that creates not just something novel but a build-up of emotional tension. A density of water builds behind a dam, then breaks through in a long, gushing, joyous flood. He has abstracted not just musical form but the arc and power of a particular kind of emotional experience. Likewise in his violin concerto; its unmistakeable sense of complete but bitterly ephemeral triumph is almost unbearable.

Beethoven could not have composed these works when he was 12, no matter what his level of abstract understanding of music. Neither could or did Mozart. Musical greatness, in short, requires eating some apple pie — with several helpings of humble, too.

The music:

Bernstein leads the Vienna with the 9th:

David Oistrakh plays the violin concerto. He doesn’t come in till after 3 minutes. Stay with it. He’ll break your heart:

@Copyright David Dobbs, 2011. Not to be re-used or distributed without expression written permission of the author.

David Dobbs writes features and essays for publications including the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, the Guardian, and other publications, and is working on his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion.
Follow @david_dobbs on Twitter.

This article originally appeared at Wired Science

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