Are Musicians Born or Made?

Powerful Essays
Topics: Music, Art
Essays on the Origins of Western Music

by

David Whitwell

Essay Nr. 36: Are Musicians Born or Made?

For nearly 2,000 years philosophers have wondered whether artists are born or made. In the case of musicians, the existence of thousands of music schools would seem to argue that musicians can be made, like engineers. Arguing against the importance of all that activity are the curious exceptions: famous musicians who cannot even read music. The latter include the most famous male pop singer of the 20th century and one of that century’s most famous orchestral conductors. The earliest important discussion of this question presents the problem well, found in a treatise, “On the Sublime,” is by a 1st century AD writer named Longinus. Nothing else can be documented about the man, but this treatise was well-known through the Renaissance and deeply influenced such writers as Dryden and Pope. Longinus begins by emphasizing the importance of learning. First of all, we must raise the question whether there is such a thing as an art [craft] of the sublime or lofty. Some hold that those are entirely in error who would bring such matters under the precepts of art. A lofty tone, says one, is innate, and does not come by teaching; nature is the only art that can compass it. Works of nature are, they think, made worse and altogether feebler when wizened by the rules of art. But I maintain that this will be found to be otherwise if it be observed that, while nature as a rule is free and independent in matters of passion and elevation, yet is she wont not to act at random and utterly without system.... Moreover, the expression of the sublime is more exposed to danger when it goes its own way without the guidance of knowledge, -- when it is suffered to be unstable and unballasted, -- when it is left at the mercy of mere momentum and ignorant audacity. It is true that it often needs the spur, but it is also true that it often needs the curb.1

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