By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Perhaps as captivating a question as how to define a “genius” in music is whether that genius can be passed down from one generation to the next.

Long before scientists mapped the genome, writers and classical critics pondered the musicians in the Bach family, which spanned seven generations and upwards of 20 eminent musicians, notably including Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian.

J.S. Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote in 1802, “If there has ever been a family in which a distinguished predisposition for one and the same art was, so to speak, inheritable, it was most certainly the Bach family.”

In the late 1800s, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso used the Bach family as a case study to further his belief that intellectual qualities such as genius could be passed from parent to child. And before genetics became a mature field of study, Lombroso was far from alone in his assessment of the Bachs — the most famous of which was by Francis Galton in 1863 titled Hereditary Genius. How else would one explain such a concentration of musical talent and accomplishment in one family?

Modern thinking on the topic boils down to the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Certainly the Bach genes might help one of J.S. Bach’s children display the same interest in music as their father, but so might just growing up in a household where music was the family business. Music education opportunities were limited in the Baroque and Classical eras, and all four of J.S. Bach’s children who went onto to be musicians were trained by their father at the St. Thomas School of Leipzig.

Bach Family Full

Notable Bachs: (From Left) Johann Sebastian, Carl Phillipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christoph Friedemann

C.P.E Bach was also greatly influenced by his godfather and close friend of J.S. Bach, composer Georg Phillipp Telemann. C.PE. Bach’s access to Telemann is again a question of having the opportunity to be nurtured. Much in the same way the son of a banker might get an internship at a bank because of his father’s connections, bearing the Bach family name undoubtedly afforded a member more opportunity and guidance in their career than any other aspiring composer born in Germany in the 1700s.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the Bach family is held up as a case study where musical talent was passed down, there are any number of descendants of recognized musical geniuses that didn’t exactly carry on the family name. Historians agree that Mozart’s son Franz Xaver Wolfgang only achieved moderate success as a performer and composer. The prospect of being compared to his father plagued Franz much of his life, and the epitaph on his grave read, “May the name of his father be his epitaph, as his veneration for him was the essence of his life.”

A 1993 study by K. Anders Ericsson suggested that there was nothing special in the Bach family tree. Ericsson argued that experts were made rather than born, and his theory was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as the 10,000-hour rule (referring to the number of hours of practice required to make anyone an expert.) This suggestion marked a stark departure from 19th-century scientists like Galton who thought the Bach’s family success was evidence of an inherited genius.

However, most studies now suggest that it is neither all nature nor all nurture, but some level of both that determines success. In 2009, geneticist Irma Jär­velä in Helsinki gave musical aptitude tests to subjects with no musical training who were related to musicians. The study found that about half of the variation in test results could be explained by heritability or genetics.

A study in July by researchers from Princeton, Rice and Michigan State universities looked at the role of practice in musical ability. Brooke Macnamara, who worked on the study, said that practice certainly played a role in ability but there are other factors including traits that are likely to have been passed down from parent to child.

“Maybe it's culturally based to some extent,” Macnamara said of why she thought the 10,000-hour rule became so popular. “I think it's a very American kind of idea that, ‘just work hard enough and you can achieve anything.’ It's very egalitarian, so people really like that idea.”

So was there some inherited “genius gene” passed through the Bach family? After a few centuries of back and forth, the modern consensus is that there probably were some helpful traits passed through seven Bach generations of musicians, but there were also more opportunities to be nurtured that came with bearing that family name.