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What Makes Bach a Musical Genius?

I was sitting in my music appreciation class the other day. Since we are studying the Baroque period, the teacher showed us a short film on the life of Bach. The film was one of those typical history documentaries: lots of British narration interspersed with commentary from experts in various fields.

One thing I've noticed is that people (myself included) always assume Bach's genius. In the film I watched in class, both a neuroscientist and a psychologist spoke in-depth about the brilliance of Bach and how this may be attributed to the musical centers in his brain being slightly larger than average.

At this point I had to pause and think: why do we assume this man is a genius? I've heard that enlarged brain story and I don't buy it. Every single musician has enlarged music centers in their brain. Cat scans and research have proven that (see Oliver Sacks). Was it his amazing output of music? Bach came from a musical family. His composition efforts were encouraged from an early age. Later on, it was his job to write a certain number of new pieces each week. Maybe it's the way his music sounds? There is something universally appealing about Bach's music. It is pleasing to the ear. In many ways, Bach is not unlike today's movie score composers; he wrote to appease his audiences.

Now I'm not trying to take Bach down a peg. I love his works and there is no doubt as to his skill on the organ. It's just interesting to me how history treats certain characters. Unlike Beethoven, Bach never tried to break social norms with his music or raise art music to new levels. Here is this guy who, it could be argued, was just doing his job (which he could do well) and trying to pay the bills in composing while having a little fun on the side. 200 years later we're examining his skull trying to figure out if genetic abnormalities led to his success as a composer.

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