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Danielle Gomez

What Makes Bach a Musical Genius?

November 10, 2009 at 7:10 AM

 I was sitting in my music appreciation class the other day.  Since we are studying the Baroque period, the teacher showed us a short film on the life of Bach.  The film was one of those typical history documentaries: lots of British narration interspersed with commentary from experts in various fields.

One thing I've noticed is that people (myself included) always assume Bach's genius.  In the film I watched in class, both a neuroscientist and a psychologist spoke in-depth about the brilliance of Bach and how this may be attributed to the musical centers in his brain being slightly larger than average.

At this point I had to pause and think: why do we assume this man is a genius?  I've heard that enlarged brain story and I don't buy it.  Every single musician has enlarged music centers in their brain.  Cat scans and research have proven that (see Oliver Sacks).  Was it his amazing output of music?  Bach came from a musical family.  His composition efforts were encouraged from an early age.  Later on, it was his job to write a certain number of new pieces each week.  Maybe it's the way his music sounds?  There is something universally appealing about Bach's music.  It is pleasing to the ear.  In many ways, Bach is not unlike today's  movie score composers; he wrote to appease his audiences.

Now I'm not trying to take Bach down a peg.  I love his works and there is no doubt as to his skill on the organ.  It's just interesting to me how history treats certain characters.  Unlike Beethoven, Bach never tried to break social norms with his music or raise art music to new levels. Here is this guy who, it could be argued, was just doing his job (which he could do well) and trying to pay the bills in composing while having a little fun on the side.  200 years later we're examining his skull trying to figure out if genetic abnormalities led to his success as a composer.

I guess there's no telling.

From Tess Z
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 3:02 PM

In Bach's time...there wasn't so called *art music*.  Musician's were employees paid to do a job.  It was a vocation and as you study Bach you will see his life was not a bowl full of cherr...uh...prunes.

Bach was not famous nor proclaimed a genius in his day.  His music was quickly forgotten and deemed too *old fashioned* and complicated by those of the Enlightenment.

Now, you ask why is Bach considered a genius today?  I think it has to do with the collections of music he composed; The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier

These collections were genius for their time.   See the following:

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 4:09 PM

You also have to remember that from a music theory point of view, much of Bach's music was quite innovative.   The Brandenburg Concerti, particularly the Fifth with its harpsichord solo, were really the first modern concerti as we know the genre.  Much of the instrumental music was unusual for its time (think of the violin s&ps, the Well-Tempered Clavier with all its keys, or the cello suites).  He pushed the fugue to its outer limits.  He was also not only a great organist but probably the reigning expert on the organ, which, at the time, was the most complicated machine that existed.  If you were having a new organ installed, it basically was not acceptable until Bach had kicked its tires, run it through its paces, and pronounced it acceptable. 

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 5:44 PM

It's because of stuff like this:

(Watch the whole thing; it demonstrates that the little piece is like a palindrome, on two axis...)

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 6:53 PM

 I understand that Bach used "cutting edge" theory in his music.  The concept of tuning an instrument to itself was still very new.  But tuning and fugues  were happening despite Bach's influence, not because of it.

My point with art music was that Beethoven basically created that schism between art music and popular music; a huge historical feat.  Bach was famous enough in his day.  This was due to a good job with the Church and his skill on the organ.

The man was unquestionably good at his job.  He worked his way up to a position that made him a recognizable face.  Years of practice made him good at the organ.  His compositions will sometimes have interesting features to it such as the palindrome or spelling his name with the notes, indicating that he enjoyed messing around a little.  I would call all of these things part of a successful career, not the result of abnormal brain size or being a genetic freak.

From Ray Randall
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 7:48 PM

Couldn't watch it. Said I had to log in with a password.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 7:50 PM

 You have to have a facebook account.

From Roland Bailey
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 8:31 PM

 re:  it demonstrates that the little piece is like a palindrome, on two axis...)


That is a great video, Laurie.  If I had a thousand years, my brain couldn't come up with a composition like that.

From Karen Bird
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 9:04 PM

That is a great video, Laurie! Thank you for posting! The analysis is nearly as ingeious as the composition.

From simon lyn
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 8:43 PM

I think it's good to question these kind of assumptions, because in our new millenium notions of human intelligence (including complex brain functions like musical creativity) will come into sharp focus. There are two lines of fairly intense research on a global scale that will eventually combine - reverse engineering the brain at the level of neurons, and the engineering of a general artificial intelligence.

There isn't a single music centre in the brain - musical creativity (and genius) will be of special interest to science just because it engages and orchestrates so many diverse areas of the brain to somehow becomes much more than the sum of their parts.

For me Bach essentially mastered and exhausted much of the the creative and technical potential of twelve tone equal temperament *at the moment of its inception* - for me this is an exceptional achievement, since we still use this tonality system it is also unsurpassed.

It also takes a very uncommonly flexible and powerful mind to improvise 4, 5 and 6 part fugues, and many other conceptually complex feats that are attributed to him. It could be argued though that this is just being clever.

My own story however isn't that concerned with these things since I am not inherently moved by complexity or mental agiility. I experience the soaring and incandescant sonorities of Bach's music, the kaleidoscopic waves of emotion and it changes my life. That's genius.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on November 10, 2009 at 9:27 PM

I agree that is is important to really question the notion of "genius."  In my opinion, this term is thrown around too flippantly these days.  The result is two different syndromes: we get the "genius" children who have to live up to the expectation that they are good at everything and the people who sell themselves short becuase they don't feel like they are smart enough so they don't even try.

Maria Montessori (the founder of the Montessori teaching method) has a good quote that goes something along the lines of "the true sign of genius is living up to your potential."  I think Bach lived up to his potential.  He pushed himself and found new ways to explore his passion.

From simon lyn
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 1:03 AM

Thanks Danielle, that's a useful distinction. I am rather hoping that technological advances in enhancing and extending human intelligence and experiences will make this rather tired and potentially paralyzing 'genius' stereotype go away for good. Then we can focus on realizing personal and collaborative musical potential in terms of sublime and exquisite human communication, which is what I think music might be about (for me at least!)



From James Patterson
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 2:20 AM

For a long time, I've felt that one attribute of artistic genius (of many kinds) is that its products can be approached on many levels.  A new listener can hear a piece by Bach and really like it on his level, and yet the piece can be analyzed to show incredible complexities and interrelationships that can fascinate even the most expert and knowledgeable listener.

One (perhaps not so profound) example: the St Anne Fugue... before I had any idea of the triple fugue and thematic consistency, I thought it was "neat"!! Examining it later opened up the "wow!" factor.

From Bart Dzieciatko
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 4:08 PM


I recomend you book by Norbert Elias 'Mozart, the sociology of a genius'. He talks about how genius is a social construct and why this label is being stick to some people and to some it isn't.

Best regards!

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on November 11, 2009 at 7:11 PM

That sound fascinating!  Thanks for the recommendation, Bart.

Another good author is Howard Gardner.  All of his books are about what "intelligence" means.  An interesting point that he made was that in western culture, a person with the label of "smart" or "genius" is expected to be good at everything.  For example, the "smart kids" in school are expected to get good grades in every subject.   This is an unreasonable expectation and creates social pressure.

From Royce Faina
Posted on November 12, 2009 at 3:56 PM

I just watched the video!  Good God in Heaven!!!!!  What a mind!!!!!

From Bart Dzieciatko
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 7:06 PM

It's true! There was also Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson who conducted a study at school regarding self-fullfiling prophecy. They gave all the children in an elementary class a test and told teachers that some of children were unusually clever (though they were actually average). Then at the end of school year they found out that these children improved their marks significantly and stood out from the rest of the class. I think the argument was also that teachers demanded more from those children.

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