Mozart, Beethoven, and Student Creativity

By Sean Cavanagh — August 28, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the past week, I’ve discussed a number of scholars’ thoughts on what schools can do to nurture creativity and innovation among students. One point of view I meant to highlight earlier this week was offered by Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology at Michigan State University. He’s written about the topic and studied the backgrounds and educational training of top-tier scientists, including Nobel laureates.

In a presentation before the National Science Board this week, Root-Bernstein argued that many schools take the wrong approach to building creative skills, in part because they encourage students to pursue a relatively narrow set of academic interests. Evidence suggests that students would be better off following a well-rounded curriculum, which includes the arts, and being encouraged to take on extracurricular pursuits, he explained. And the process of learning a new talent or hobby, with all of the pleasure and frustration it brings, helps spark students’ creativity in other areas, such as scientific study.

I’ll quote from a blog post that Root-Bernstein and his wife, Michele, wrote for Psychology Today:

“The fact is that the arts foster innovation. We’ve just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art to their scientific ability with some riff on Nobel prizewinning physicist Max Planck words: ‘The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination.’ ”

In another post, Root-Bernstein recounted his experiences teaching a course on the creative process at UCLA. One of his goals was to refute the notion that creativity is something that students either have or they don’t, which comes to them like a lightning bolt, or the private counsel of The Almighty. He calls this “the Mozart myth”—the idea that some people “are born with talent so tremendous that music and other cultural products spring from their minds fully-fledged, as if by magic. Mozart, so the myth goes, would compose his symphonies in one sitting with nary a revision through a single act of inspiration.” Yet creativity is never the result of a “single act,” the professor explained to his students. It’s the product of toil and sweat. As an example, he had his class discuss Beethoven, who “filled notebook after notebook with musical dead ends and futile variations in painstaking composition.” Yet some of those seemingly pointless notebook scribblings evolved into the Fifth Symphony.

The professor, in his essay, recalls a student in his class who was a songwriter, and who had penned a big hit, but who was struggling to return to those creative heights. Over the course of the class, Root-Bernstein required students to learn a new craft or hobby. He asked them to keep daily journals on what they were doing, or not doing, to cultivate their skills. He told the songwriter to reflect on the process he followed in composing that song he was so proud of. The genesis of that song had actually come about through six months of tough work, writing and revising, breakthroughs and setbacks, before the final product came together.

Schools can help students develop creative skills at an earlier age by helping them understand this often-laborious path. Yet schools today “tend to do just the opposite,” he writes. “[W]e hold up for scrutiny only finished products, strip them of the processes, tools, skills, histories and personal stories that gave them birth, and Intentionally or not, discard and erase creative know-how .”

What do you make of Root-Bernstein’s arguments, and how easily could they be applied to K-12 education?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.