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What is a Musical Genius?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The word "genius" is used and abused in our culture. Musicians are praised as “genius” after a great album and terms like “boy genius” and “evil genius” resonate in popular culture. Today -- a week after the MacArthur “Genius” Awards were granted -- we ask: just what is genius? Joining us is Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code; and Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University.

Guests:

Daniel Coyle and Mark Anthony Neal

Comments [29]

A.C. Douglas from New Jersey

Pardon me, but your two guests, Daniel Coyle and Mark Anthony Neal, are idiots. Their common thesis, if one can dignify their techno-postmodern-equalitarian gibberish by that term, is demonstrably false in so far as it attempts to explain genius. There's nothing whatsoever "Romantic", as some have called it, about the idea that genius is an almost mystical phenomenon; a phenomenon the source of which has so far defied all attempts at isolating. No amount of hard work and practice — even 10,000 hours worth — will result in producing works of genius by one who was not born with the still mysterious brain circuitry/chemistry responsible for genius. Which is not to say that genius can fulfill its potential absent hard work and practice. We have it from that paradigmatic born genius, Mozart himself, that he had to work his little ass off to achieve what he achieved. But the incontrovertible fact remains: geniuses, like idiots, are born, not made.

(BTW, apropos Nina Simone's "Four Women", I knew Nina Simone before she was Nina Simone, and "Four Women" is indeed a work of genius. But it could hardly be otherwise as it was produced by an artist of genius.)

ACD

Oct. 01 2009 05:18 PM
rob-o-cop from ny

I'd have to nominate musicians 'The Mars Volta'
They have a tendency to redefine progressive and musical formula with each album

Oct. 01 2009 02:37 PM
bambi from colorado

Where do you classify a 3 year old kid who states: "I know what 2 minus 3 is. It's negative 1."
How about a kid who hates piano and hardly ever practices, but who mathematically and esthetically "gets it" and plays astonishingly after only a few practices?

Oct. 01 2009 02:36 PM
Nick from UWS

This is a ludicrous discussion; this is not about genius. It's about developing some level of virtuosity.

You have people who practice their entire lives who never move beyond grade school level musicality. Much less write things on the level of say, George Gershwin.

Genius is intellectual or artistic accomplishment that changes the entire flow of mankind's vision in that area, and makes it impossible to go back. Picasso, Einstein...that level.

Oct. 01 2009 02:36 PM
Jeffrey Kaufman from New Jersey

This is silly stuff. Genius is not merely the ability, by application of time and effort, to perfect a performance skill. Genius is fundamentally profound insight as usually seen in the CREATIVE act, not the performance of such act. If a performer has "genius" it is in his insight not merely perfected skill.

Oct. 01 2009 02:36 PM
Sandra from Astoria, Queens

This shoulda been a Smackdown! Because I completely disagree with Daniel Coyle and agree with Evan #5.

I could practice the guitar for 10,000 hours and MAYBE achieve the technical virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix (though I doubt it!) but I could NEVER be the guitar genius he was because he brought something entirely unique to himself to that instrument.

Oct. 01 2009 02:33 PM
Karen OT10 from Westchester Cnty

As a classically trained musician and vocalist who did not find a professional life, I suggest a connecting of dots to political and social realities, that the kind of passionate committment found in children who become virtuosi must be fostered by a sense of and a reality of support from family and institutions. Committment to an instrument or vocal operatic study is not open to the lower middle classes, maybe in Germany or Austria but not in the U.S. It also by the way requires an ability to ignore to a large degree, other areas of knowledge, of talent, of intellectual pursuit or social consciousness.

Oct. 01 2009 02:33 PM
Edward from NJ

How do prodigies fit into this research?

Oct. 01 2009 02:31 PM
mozo from nyc

It seems to me that at times lack of talent is mistaken as genius by certain people.

Oct. 01 2009 02:31 PM
bob from NYC

speaking about sports and mathematics. i think we are are in the process of breading geniuses. hard work, thousand hours of practice is not enough. even talent is not enough. in mathematics you need people with light asperger to push their fields forward. same with sports. some slight genetic deviation makes a better swimmer or runner plus talent, motivation and hard work. that's, what i think, makes the XXI century genius. r

Oct. 01 2009 02:29 PM
j from Brooklyn

I agree with the guest study creates the matrix from which your imagination can be hoisted: jazz was created through the practice of scales and great knowledge of classical music.

Oct. 01 2009 02:28 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

;)

Oct. 01 2009 02:27 PM
j from Brooklyn

imagination is more important than knowledge- Al Einstein

Oct. 01 2009 02:25 PM
Sheldon from Sheldon

Genuis to me is about inovation and breaking barriers. That's why Micheal Jackson is and Prince is not. Eventhough Prince was obviously, the more trained musician and probably had more of a consistent quality of music over the years.

Oct. 01 2009 02:24 PM
Alison Schiff from nyc

the MacArthur foundation doesn't use the term 'genius' for their awardees......only the press does that. The people who get the grants are called fellows

Oct. 01 2009 02:23 PM
Alison Schiff from nyc

the MacArthur foundation doesn't use the term 'genius' for their awardees......only the press does that. The people who get the grants are called fellows

Oct. 01 2009 02:23 PM
Mike from Manhattan from NYC

Does this guy sound like a carnival huckster to anyone else? What is he selling? Just a book?

I would recommend Howard Gardner's book "Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Four Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Own Extraordinariness." for anyone interested in a less breathless examination of this topic.

Oct. 01 2009 02:22 PM
the truth from bkny

Not sure about James Brown or Kanye West but Michael Jackson without question was a musical GENIUS! (period)

Oct. 01 2009 02:22 PM
Stuart Garber from Brooklyn


This is all good re: technical wizardry, but what about folks like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, David Byrne, Brian Eno, who all, in very different ways, reshaped popular music with unique ways of understanding and recontextualizing the ingrediants of their craft - in ways they didn't even consciously understand at the time. (As Dylan said in the '80's, "I don't know who wrote those songs.")

Oct. 01 2009 02:21 PM
David Hume from Staten Island, NY

I thought Genius referred to something outside the individual like a visiting Genie. Someone is lucky and has a Genie that visits and is not something the individual can obtain on their own through practice or otherwise.

I think this is the Greek definition.

Dave

Oct. 01 2009 02:19 PM
Stuart Garber from Brooklyn

2:12 PM
This is all good re: technical wizardry, but what about folks like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, David Byrne, Brian Eno, who all, in very different ways, reshaped popular music with unique ways of understanding and recontextualizing the ingrediants of their craft - in ways they didn't even consciously understand at the time. (As Dylan said in the '80's, "I don't know who wrote those songs.")

Oct. 01 2009 02:18 PM
Cynthia from Long Island

Over-use of the word genius is just our culture's tendency toward hyperbole. It is indicative of the overall demise of English Language skills in the US. People say something is "genius" or "brilliant" when they just mean "good." If you say "good" then people want to know what's wrong with it.

Oct. 01 2009 02:18 PM
bob from NYC

i think as most big words "genius" is overused, that why i fell in love with what vladimir feltsman said (at least mr. lopate credited it to him):
"mozart and beethoven were geniuses, but bach was sent by god".
bach wouldn't stand a chance if god would sent beethoven to use? r

Oct. 01 2009 02:18 PM
Tom from Upper West Side

Come on, guys!

Musical practice has two components: constructing the neural circuits AND exploring the intellectualy dimensions to any given work.

These days, we have too many technocrats of music, hailed for their genius, but they have nothing to say to our hearts and minds.

Oct. 01 2009 02:12 PM
Evan

John,

Your guest is not talking about genius at all; he's talking about virtuosity.

genius is the profound use of one's imagination and the ability to articulate it.

Oct. 01 2009 02:11 PM
Gary from UWS

The term "genius" is a debauched currency, just like the terms "celebrity", "hero" and "unique", basically because people's vocabularies are lacking.

Oct. 01 2009 02:11 PM
Art WHite from Brooklyn

Musical ability is infinitely wide and given out very unequally. I teach elementary school a little and usually as few as 3 out of 90 instinctively clap back any kind of syncopated rhythm accurately.
There are people who can hear so clearly, to the point of writing down in real time if they so wish, that anyone termed a 'genius' should have this ability at the least. 10,000 hours is nothing. There are many super musical chops jocks who are far from genius. You need passion, vision, composition and bravery...
Heremeto Pascoal, Zappa, Hindemith, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Prince eg

Oct. 01 2009 02:10 PM
David Hume from Staten Island, NY

Is it true that only the Western world has these types of people like Shakespeare, Mozart and Leonardo Da Vinci?

If it is only 10,000 hours than how come there are not multiple Mozarts? Many people practice for that amount of time.

Does Culture play a big part in this?

Great show guys.
Dave

Oct. 01 2009 02:06 PM
Gallagher from Crippled Creek

John Schaefer is my favorite genius

Oct. 01 2009 01:20 PM

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