The Mozart paradox

…Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. … What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.

itzhak-perlmanThe latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. … Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft. — David Brooks, Genius: The modern view, NY Times, April 30, 2009

Poor Mozart. It seems he had more in common with Britney Spears than we might ever have imagined. He owed his musical genius to an overbearing stage-father who relentlessly pushed him to achieve. He was not talented, not in the romantic sense of the word, but merely skilled, a technician whose single-minded work ethic drove him farther than his musical contemporaries.

In the eyes of scientific materialism, we are all just clever machines.

Which begs the question, if Mozart’s genius lay not in some divine gift but in decades of slavish practice, why are computers such lousy musical composers? Why do machines write such awful poetry? Why can’t a computer create something original, and beautiful?

Isn’t this mechanistic view of musical giftedness just the old 1,000-monkeys-typing-Shakespeare canard, dressed in hip new clothes?

The trouble with the man-is-machine paradigm, besides the fact that it desperately wants to dismiss the possibility of God, is that it also dismisses the beautiful originality and artistic insight that Mozart, Bach, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, et. al., have given the world.

One reason to doubt the theory that Mozart was just a very hard worker is that his music was not derivative, nor was he merely an incremental improvement over his contemporaries. He was not “new and improved,” but wholly original; his music simply had no equal.

Mozart gave the world beauty — a different sort of beauty than it had ever known.

There is a feel-good, everybody-can-be-a-genius egalitarianism behind these new ideas about giftedness, which very much appeals to our desire for fairness and justice. We wish it were true, that all of us could be little Mozarts if we just worked harder.

The educational philosopher Shinichi Suzuki has been misunderstood on this point, I think. Americans saw the remarkable violin performances of his young Suzuki method students and drew the (erroneous) conclusion that little Johnny and Suzie could become child prodigies with lots of early childhood immersion and non-stop practice.

In fact, Suzuki’s musical training was never meant to manufacture musical prodigies — his intent was to stimulate children’s minds for other types of learning, and to encourage them to become better human beings by immersing them in the beauty of music.

What American audiences saw, however, was a cookie-cutter method for instant musical giftedness.

Suzuki’s highly skilled students never made the leap from technical proficiency to art, originality, beauty, or genius, because there really is something more, something that can’t be put in to the budding musician if God left it out.

Science wants to de-mystify mystery. Scientific curiosity has unraveled wonders, and society usually benefits when it understands our world more completely.

These days, science dogmatically opposes any extra-materialistic ingredient in the explanation of anything. When faced with a paradox, science reflexively looks for a natural-world explanation.

It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are. … The paradox is not a concession but a category, an ontological definition which expresses the relation between an existing cognitive spirit and eternal truth. — Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments

Paradox is not a concession but a category. Darwinian evolution would argue that all of us should be more or less equal, except for slight genetic variations that may help or harm our chances for survival.

But we see instead that there are certain rare forms of genius that go far beyond the end of the bell curve. Science wants to explain these outliers. Their existence is a profound evolutionary paradox, because these gifted people have bodies and minds composed of the very same tissues that we all possess — and yet, their common faculties give rise to uncommon abilities.

If we have been created by a Creator God, if we are imago dei — made in the image of God — the Christian view is that we are not machines stamped out on an assembly line.

To claim that these rare and beautiful gifts are merely the result of hard work and determination diminishes their remarkable character. One only needs to listen to Mozart for a little while to realize that he was not merely good, but touched somehow with a divine fire.

Perhaps giftedness is actually a signpost meant to lift our eyes up, so that we will seek out and praise the God who has so wonderfully made us.

(To read more on the modern view of mind as machine, take a look at my essay from 2004 called Are we spiritual machines?)

Photo credit: Itzhak Perlman, University of Florida Performing Arts

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  1. Great post, Charlie. I think that virtuosity is the result of both exceptional ability and really, really hard work. The thing about early opportunity a la Suzuki is that, in general, the earlier talent, whether great or small, is brought out, the better. There are those who achieve virtuosity in something they take up later in life, but it’s even rarer, and usually based on related abilities that have been developed earlier.

    There’s no question, Mozart had a unique genius. No question — just listen to what he did with the standard, “classical” idioms — he made them speak.

  2. Wonderful thoughts! I love the idea that God touches some people with a gift in an area for purposes of His own. Sort of like the prophets of old. Was it hard work or spiritual discipline that made God speak through them? Maybe He chose people with those virtues, but a person couldn’t just decide to be God’s voice to the people by trying hard. (=

  3. I have recently returned from Italy, birthplace of the Renaissance. First, I must admit that I love Europe. I love the atmosphere of beauty nearly everywhere you turn. Monuments to God-knows-who, cathedrals, galleries, music… The Europeans love their art and their sons and daughters who have created it.

    But while in Florence, I visited the Duomo, the magnificent gothic cathedral by Filippo Brunelleschi, and at the same time I was marveling at the handiwork of the architecture and the art inside, I was pushing my way through a sea of sweaty, rude, smelly humanity which had come to check off another piece of Renaissance history from their lists and perhaps leave behind some graffiti and trash to deface one of the most beautiful works of art in the world. And I felt somehow disgusted. I can’t exactly explain it, but I felt sick about it. And some of the thoughts you expressed in your article came to my mind: are we simply crude animals who have somehow, from time to time, managed to birth genetic oddities that engender genius? Or are we something more? Does each of us have a spark, a holy, latent image burned into us that aspires to something more than Darwinian survival? At times, it’s easy for my cynical side to say “no”. At other times, beauty wins out.

  4. Pat Slomanski says

    I too truly believe that God has and continue to inspire artists and musicians. Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven (to name a few) were indeed inspired by the Spirit of God. There was NO way humanly possible for Handel to compose MESSIAH in 24 days and the orchestration in a couple of days. In fact, Handel himself felt the hand of God on his work and acknowledged that he “did think that he had seen heaven and our great God” after he composed “The Hallelujah Chorus.” Music and art are only two ways in which God speaks, inspires, and lights the fires of faith. No matter how much practice…the hand of God is stronger. I know because I am a concert pianist. I NEVER practiced when I was a girl, and yet God saw fit to grace me with the gift of music. Thanks be to God for this gift? As the saying goes, “Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire, and God gave us music that we might pray without words.”

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