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music | muse

T

he idea of the “mad genius” is not a new one. The notion can be traced back to the Romantic movement, in which madness was seen as a gateway to realms beyond the ordinary. Given the individuality and subjectivity of Romantic philosophy and art, madness was thought of as a privilege for a composer, and even a requirement for a great one. It was seen as the ultimate gift given to a selected few, allowing them to break norms and reveal previously unforeseen possibilities. The biographies of Romantic composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, or Tchaikovsky are filled with stories of unsettled relationships, psychotic obsessions, and endless personal struggles. The concept of the tortured, mad musician still transfers over to the modern day. Never mind the likes of Peter Gabriel, Kurt Cobain, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and Ian Curtis, but we’re slowly learning that even seemingly stable-minded musicians like Freddie Mercury lived relatively unbalanced lives. Simply suggesting that madness is equal to genius is both bold and ignorant. The prodigious English composer Benjamin Britten once remarked in a tongue-incheek fashion: “The old idea of a composer suddenly having a terrific idea and sitting up all night to write it is nonsense. Night time is for sleeping.” If we look at Britten for advice, it appears the popular idea of inspiration being found in crazed moments is false. In recorded interviews, musicians like Neil Young and Slayer reject the mad genius myth, repeatedly emphasising that they are “in fact, quite normal”. So, why have audiences felt the need to apply this label to composers and musicians

for generations? And why are we so fixated on what deviates away from the ‘normal’? It seems there are two explanations. On the one hand, the “madness” associated with the musical genius may just be a result of their values and habits (i.e. some artists tend to act in a certain way because they think it looks cooler). On the other hand, it may hold an actual cognitive basis. This latter explanation seems more interesting.

it would be ridiculous to label anyone who writes a wonderful piece of music as mad, and vice versa If a musician is labelled as a “genius”, that suggests their musical prowess and creative qualities lie at the extremes of normality. Surely it can be said, then that geniuses are, to some degree, abnormal. They have something everyone else doesn’t: the golden ticket to unique creativity. Academics have actually found differences between the brains of “creative geniuses”and those of everyone else.

Historians like John MacGregor and artists like Paul Klee endorse madness as a precondition of being an inventive genius. The psychologist Cesare Lombroso found physical, data-based evidence suggesting that insanity was the root of fantastic creative impulses. He concluded that madness could “transform into painters, persons who had never been accustomed to handle a brush.” The works of notable psychologists Anthony Kemp and Neel Burton derive similar assumptions, and Antony Storr’s book Music and the Mind also concludes that musical creativity is inherently associated with mental illness. But we can’t be too hasty. Although there’s clearly a link between genius and insanity, it would be ridiculous to label anyone who writes a wonderful piece of music as mad, and vice versa. And just because many great musicians and composers were psychologically unstable, this doesn’t mean all talented artists are. In fact, the links found between genius and madness have caused the idea of madness or mental illness to become sickeningly en vogue. Just think of the popular obsession with the so-called “27 Club” of musicians who have died at the age of 27. By linking mental issues with brilliance, are we unreasonably glorifying mental illness? And are musicians now pretending to be mad in an effort to be seen as a genius? There may never be a straightforward explanation to the phenomenon of the mad genius. Although there are unarguably links between creativity and madness, for the majority of musicians, any outward appearance of madness is likely just the manifestation of an ill-conceived fantasy.

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Profile for Pi Media, UCLU

Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation  

Our third issue of 2015-16 explores our generation of millennial, and our collective identity. Why is our generation the way it is - what ex...

Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation  

Our third issue of 2015-16 explores our generation of millennial, and our collective identity. Why is our generation the way it is - what ex...

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