Greatness, Genius, and Learning in Music

April 1, 2019

Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for The New York Times, has written in multiple places about the “greatest” (2011) or most “indispensable” (2018) composers. These writings often receive significant attention, including two common points of criticism. On one side, people argue about who is included or not and why those decisions are made. On the other side, people criticize the premise and what it means to define a composer as great or indispensable, including the cultural values associated with such designations. Still, the language of greatness and genius dominates discussion throughout the world of classical music. Ben Schmidt’s 2015 analysis of language in teacher reviews reveals that college music students use the word genius to describe their professors far more frequently than students in any other field. I interpret “genius” as one manifestation of the language of greatness and indispensability, because much like greatness, we define genius as an immutable trait; one is born a genius or not, and if one achieves genius later in life, it was always inside them. As a means of generating discussion in this forum, I will present three angles regarding how the language of greatness and genius can inhibit student learning. First, I propose that the language lacks substance in a way that hinders student work; second, I frame it within the concept of fixed and growth mindsets; third, I argue that this language undermines students’ development of professional identities.

From my perspective, the language of genius, brilliance, masterwork, etc. hinders student learning. When I ask students to write about music, whether classical or popular, they often use these terms to describe composers, musicians, and pieces, but rarely define what they mean. Greatness provides a subjective assessment of value, but in a musical culture that declares certain composers, pieces, and performers to be great by definition, students feel comfortable using it as an objective term. Previously, I asked students to describe what made a piece great in their opinion. But, because greatness has taken on this objective quality, students found themselves unable to interrogate what made a certain composer or piece great. Underlying this, many students assume that they do not have a voice or status capable of interrogating long-standing assessments of greatness. Seeking to move away from generic discussions of greatness and toward having students engage critically with their own experiences, I now discuss music as interesting to me. Instead of research papers focused on retelling the lives of great men, I ask students to identify a piece of music they find interesting and to convince me that I should be interested too. After changing this frame, my students now write about their experience of music, which also allows me to see how they grow throughout the semester as experts in the discipline.

I have learned that my observation regarding student learning and growth has roots in the science of mindsets, developed by Carol Dweck. In her book, Mindset: The new psychology of success (2006), Dweck compares fixed-mindset approaches to intelligence and growth-oriented mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe that some are born intelligent or “geniuses,” whereas those with growth mindsets tend to believe that they can accomplish the tasks needed through hard work. Research has shown that adopting growth mindsets can have profound effects on students’ success in learning across a variety of fields. More importantly, we must adopt growth mindsets as teachers. We need to believe that all of our students are capable of succeeding and that we can help them succeed. Otherwise, we are reducing our role to judging a talent competition with little or no responsibility for teaching and inspiring students.

Many music students find themselves in an awkward position. We emphasize repeatedly the importance of consistent practice and incremental improvement. However, we also speak about “natural” talent. This combination can be especially frustrating for students when they reach a wall, wondering if they have reached the limit of their natural ability and the point at which returns on practice will diminish. Only by reframing our language away from “natural” talent and internal genius to the power of effective practice techniques and dedicated effort, will we give all students the opportunity to succeed when they begin to struggle.

In response to these negative impacts on both teaching and learning, I suggest that we may take a different perspective on greatness and expertise. Drawn from the literature on student partnership in higher education, I ask that we recognize the expertise our students bring to each learning situation. As described by Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten student-faculty partnerships are “a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (2014, p. 6-7). In schools of music, this conceptualization seems especially important. We often tell students that their participation in music programs represents the beginning of a professional career, and we ask that they begin to view themselves as professionals. The language of greatness risks creating a barrier by undermining students’ recognition of their own expertise and ability to contribute meaningfully to the profession. Through identifying and highlighting each students’ experiences, values, and skills, we can enhance the ways our schools connect with and serve local communities while preparing students for varied roles and opportunities in their futures.

In opening this forum discussion, I advocate for rethinking our approach to music education and professionalization so that we can highlight the legitimate contributions that students make to a variety of aspects of the field, as well as how we can maximize opportunities for student success.


Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., and Felten, P. 2014. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. 2006. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Schmidt, B. 2015. Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews.

Tommasini, A. 2011. The Greatest. The New York Times, January 21, 2011.

Tommasini, A. 2018. The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide. New York: Penguin Press.

1419 Last modified on April 15, 2020
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