It Runs in the Family

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach with 3 of his children

Bach with 3 of his children

The Bach musical dynasty lasted for 200 years and is therefore at the heart of the question…”Is musical excellence inherited? Is there a musical brain?”

I don’t know whether we are still debating the nature/nurture conundrum or if it is now the nature plus nurture hypothesis. Knowing as we do that nature and nurture work in tandem and form an alliance that goes back as far as the womb, are there instances, like in the musical realm, where one plays the major role? In other words, is musical talent built into the genes?

What makes this question difficult to answer is that in the great musical families the milieu was very propitious for nurturing; young members were taught by the older ones and found it natural to follow in their footsteps. There were great artisanal musicians just as there were families of carpenters and of millers whose craft was handed down from fathers to sons. For example, the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin was a descendant of 200 years of Couperin organists.

Johann Sebastian Bach was the best known of fifty eminent musicians and composers named Bach. In the town of Erfurt, Germany all musicians were referred to as Bachs. Four of his 20 children (by several wives) composed music which is still being performed today: Carl Philipp Emmanuel was the most famous of his sons. Johann Christian Bach (known as the London Bach) was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. Johann Christoph Friederich and Wilhelm Friedman were prolific Bach family composers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was trained by his composer father and soon eclipsed him. Leopold Mozart is now mostly remembered for his Toy symphony which is still being played occasionally.

Johann Strauss (The Elder) of Vienna (1804-1849) wrote waltzes, polkas and other dances and was the father of famous violinists. His son Johann Strauss II (the Younger) was the Waltz King and best known for The Blue Danube and the operetta Die Fledermaus. Joseph Strauss played in the family orchestra and composed dances and marches. The New Year’s Day concert in Vienna , a lavish affair, each year features the music of all three Strausses.

Alessandro Scarlatti, the Italian Baroque composer, produced operas and cantatas. His son Domenico was even more famous and bridged the Baroque and Classical styles of music.

Pepe Romero (1944-) the classical flamenco guitarist founded a quartet with his father and his two brothers Celin and Angel. He studied with his father Celodonio and made his debut at age 7. The composer Rodrigo wrote the work “Concierto para una Fiesta” for them.

Wynton Marsalis belongs to a family of jazz musicians from New Orleans. His father Ellis was his mentor and, with Wynton’s brothers, (Branford, Delfeayo and Jason) started a “Jazz Renaissance”. Wynton studied both jazz and classical music and excels in both.

So there we have a variety of musical families with a rich environment and plenty of guidance, nurturing and role models. And we are back to the question: Does practice make perfect or does musical ability run in the family?

And back to the usual identical twin studies. Experiments show that a twin who practices more than his brother (her sister) does not achieve more. No amount of lessons will turn a tone deaf child or one who does not process sound or detect differences in pitch, melody or rhythm into a Mozart. Without manual dexterity you will not become a good pianist. In other words success is not just a matter of determination.

This does not mean that if you have the talent you do not need to practice. And so, although musical ability is mostly inherited, and talent does run in families, the families who possess it also have the desire and determination to cultivate it.

Facebook Comments



One comment

  1. Always so informative, I had no idea those famous composers were the product of long family lines. I think I’m more accustomed to thinking of genius as “happening” suddenly and surprisingly, because we usually focus on the genius person. But it certainly more sense that it has a root!

    I have been fortune in my position to watch many people perform in different roles and I must agree. The magic people, the really admirable ones, found the right combination of good luck and hard work. I see many people with hard work, but little skill, and my heart aches for them. I have an employee who works as hard as he can, but his skill is very limited.

    On the other hand, I feel disdain when I’ve seen those who have all the skill, and none of the hard work. They usually achieve middling-success, but it’s so clear they could be great if they chose to try.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *