How was it that Mozart was so brilliant so young?

Perhaps the most exceptional child prodigy in any domain ever, was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Most people – including music educators – assume that the reason for Mozart’s musicality was mostly to do with genetics. They say ‘he was born musical’. But can Mozart’s precocity be explained in any other way?
mozart as a boy
Some people argue that Mozart’s musical feats can be explained rationally. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction 230 years on, but several factors help to account for his accomplishments. Mozart was immersed in a concentrated musical environment from his earliest days. His father, Leopold, was an excellent music educator and took every opportunity to earnestly promote his son’s musical ability. Stories such as that of two-year-old Wolfgang identifying the sound of pig squeals as G-sharp should be taken with a grain of salt, as they were most likely spread by his father, who was not always honest in relation to his son where music was concerned. Leopold was known to subtract a year from the ages of his children, Wolfgang and Nannerl, when advertising their performances. Leopold knew that lowering his children’s ages would augment the specialness of their appeal and perhaps enhance his own reputation as a teacher.

A close inspection of Mozart’s childhood compositions indicates assistance from his father as well as thematic material borrowed from other composers, especially Johann Christian Bach. Mozart collaborated with JC Bach in London at the age of nine when he stayed in Soho, London, for about 6 months. If we accept that these are normal processes that lead to achievement, even extraordinary achievement, then none of this is an issue. Imitation is a natural part of the learning process, and lying about a child’s age does not detract from the skills exhibited. However, it does skew the picture. Genetic pre-birth fortune cannot be ruled out, but Mozart’s early musical environment was encouraging and inspiring. Having a great passion for music—and an overbearing, micromanaging father—led him to practise for several hours a day from the age of three. It is likely that Mozart accrued 10000 hours of practice by the age of eight or nine. In other words, the quantitative component of his practice was already at an expert level, and given the expertise of his father, Mozart would have certainly been guided in the principles of ‘deliberate practise’.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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6 comments on “How was it that Mozart was so brilliant so young?
  1. […] Achieving Musical Excellence: Mozart […]

  2. Whenever people have asked me this question when teaching music history I have always told them basicly what you wrote….having been born in to such a musical environment, how could he NOT have excelled in music. Same goes for J.S. Bach. Thanks for putting Mozart’s giftedness into perspective.

  3. DVSoom says:

    ok, but how to explain that Mozart as a child of 10 years could perfectly put into music (arias) feelings as love, tenderness, happiness, jealousness, etc etc ? It remains a real mystery…

    • mdgriffin63 says:

      Did he? I think this is unlikely. Are any of his boyhood compositions considered great? I think the most amazing composer for expressing romantic love and longing was Schubert at 18. Mozart? We do know that his father more than likely assisted his earlier compositions. However, by age 10 he had been composing for a while already. Which arias are you referring to?

  4. I don’t understand why all the mystery. Mozart was BOTH genetically gifted AND had a superb teacher in his father AND was born into a living tradition, playing in string quartets by age 5 alongside adult musicians who gathered regularly at Leopold’s home to play.

    And since there were no radios/recordings etc., everybody who wanted to hear music had to be able to make music.So Mozart was born into a “perfect storm”.

    As for Mozart as a child of 10 years able to put into music such feelings as love, tenderness, happiness, jealousy, rage. etc: Mozart was born into a European musical tradition which CATALOGUED the “affections” into musical formulae. (Remember the Baroque “Affektenlehre”?) Mozart inherited that tradition, though by Mozart’s time (The Age of Enlightenment) those conventions had been somewhat modified. But in the 18th-Century Age of Reason, the conventioniaizing and rationalizing of musical expression of emotion had hardly abated. Mozart at age 10 was not “expressing” feelings; he was using the conventions he had been taught.

    Finally, another factor has to be considered. Leopold was to a significant extent motivated by the prospect of MONEY. This is certainly one important reason why the father paraded his children around Europe to perform as trained monkeys for royalty and nobility (The very gifted Nannerl wasa soon dropped because girls could not be professional musicians in those days).

    Remember that travel in those days was still primitive: a coach with horses, no paved roads, very hazardous in winter, and in summer getting the carriage stuck in mud. Plus, the child mortality rate in Europe at that time was still very high. But that didn’t stop Leopold from cashing in on his children’s talents.

    • mdgriffin63 says:

      Solomon, I like your point “Mozart at age 10 was not “expressing” feelings; he was using the conventions he had been taught.” I am curious though how you know that Mozart was genetically gifted? Is it not possible that the ‘perfect storm’ as you say of intense musical experiences coupled with a deep love and passion to make music every moment of the day could result in a ‘Mozart’?

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