The Frontal Cortex

Musical Geniuses

In a sidebar for my last Seed article, I argued that Mozart’s musical genius was the result of dedication and practice, and not some innate talent for symphonic composition. Well, here’s another musical savant trying to prove me wrong.

On Tuesday, Sony Classical will release his 34-minute Symphony No. 5, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under José Serebrier. Rounding out the disc is the 18-minute Quintet for Strings, played by the Juilliard String Quartet and Darrett Adkins, cellist.

Both the symphony and the quintet display a gift for drama and for lyricism, expressed in sophisticated colors and textures. There’s verve in the rhythms and invention in the harmonies; the tunes catch the ear. Movement by movement and start to finish, the architecture has a sturdy logic that does not preclude surprise. It’s an impressive debut. And Mr. Greenberg is just 14.

I always find these stories vaguely depressing. At the age of 14, I was still trying to find the gnostic truth buried in the lyrics of Dylan and Springsteen, not writing string quartets that sounded like Bach fugues. So is Jay Greenberg living proof that some people are just born with talent? In other words, if we sequenced the genomes of Greenberg, Beethoven and Mozart, would we find some common snippets of DNA? Are some people just blessed with the composition gene?

I doubt it. Like Mozart, Greenberg got a very early start. At the age of 3, he was fiddling with a cello and inventing his own musical notation. He has been obsessed with music ever since. If we follow K. Anders Ericsson’s logic, and assume that expertise requires approximately 10,000 hours of stringent practice (and assume that most people practice about 1000 hours a year), then Greenberg is actually right on schedule. Furthermore, if history is any guide, then Greenberg’s earliest compositions (like Mozart’s childhood symphonies) will probably be ignored in comparison with his more mature works. After all, the true test of talent is an ability to keep on improving. The best performers find ways to keep on getting better.


  1. #1 Winawer
    August 15, 2006

    I don’t understand why you insist on taking an extreme nurture position in the nurture vs. nature debate, when it has been fairly clear for some time that both are involved. You’re just plain getting the science wrong. If you need an introduction, try Matt Ridley’s book “Nature via Nurture”; it’s fairly readable.

  2. #2 ruth
    August 16, 2006

    some people think that Williams syndrome could be a good example of an innate ability for music (cognitive impairment with remarkable high musical competencies).
    (personally I doubt it)

  3. #3 Gary Greenberg
    August 16, 2006

    Rather than Matt Ridley’s book, interested readers should consult Nature and Nurture, edited by Cynthia Garcia Coll (Earlbaum) or Gene Worship by Lesley Rogers and Gisela Kaplan or Exploding the Gene Myth by Ruth Hubbard. These books are all written by seasoned scientists familiar with the issues.

New comments have been disabled.