Classical composers’ creativity & the blues

The creative output of three composers who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries was found to be higher when they were sad and lower when they were happy, according to a research report out of Denmark, published June 8 in The Review of Economics and Statistics.

statue of Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn, Germany
Bonn, Beethoven-Denkmal

Karol Jan Borowiecki, working at the University of Southern Denmark, analyzed more than 1,400 letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. He looked for words and phrases that indicated positive or negative emotions—joy, love, grief, hurt, etc.—and compared his data to

  • other biographical information from the composers’ lives
  • the number of important, quality-adjusted compositions written

He defined what he called well-being models and found that certain events in the composers’ lives tended to make them write letters to their friends indicating emotional changes, such as increases or decreases in positive or negative emotions. An illness or death in the family would cause negative emotions to increase, while receiving a tenured position or having a composition well-received on a tour would result in an increase in positive emotions.

One significant thing about this study is that it considers the entirety of each composer’s working life. It’s not a snapshot, like those we use to measure schools, but a trajectory of each composer’s emotional state throughout their lives, as indicated in their letters, much as our emotional states may one day be analyzed by our tweets, combined with a study of biographical events that might have caused those emotional changes and a measure of creative output.

He found definitive evidence that the number of important works written each year “is causally attributable to an increase in negative emotions.” He looked specifically at three negative moods: anger, anxiety, and sadness. When he did that, he determined that sadness was “the main negative feeling that drives creativity.”

Specifically, and in terms more understandable to today’s musicians, a 37-percent increase in negative emotions, especially sadness, inspired one additional important composition the following year, on average.

The cause of sadness was often poor health, a death in the family, or an illness of a loved one that could potentially lead to death. Even poverty got an honorable mention in the published report, since periods of poverty often led, predictably, to an increase in negative emotions. Composers wrote letters more frequently when negative emotions peaked, he reports, suggesting “that composers wrote less when their positive emotions were high.”

An interesting side result is that obtaining a permanent position (tenure) exhibits a strong negative correlation with the productivity measure. [This is] consistent with what one might expect and also in line with previous research. Obtaining job security or, alternatively, becoming involved in new duties not directly related to composing results in a lower creative output for a composer. Being married or living in cohabitation is also negatively related with compositions written.

I’m assuming, except for Liszt, that marriages or living with others brought periods of joy and happiness, not grief and sorrow, although I could be wrong about that.

An important contribution to research

I find myself increasingly thinking about how happy students are and decreasingly concerned with how “college- and career-ready” they are. I don’t say sadness is a bad thing; rather, I note that students who express the most melancholy moods, even temporarily, often produce the most original and insightful work in class and in life. That heartache doesn’t have to consume them and turn into depression, but sometimes just processing those feelings naturally boosts creativity, which isn’t the worst thing that could happen to kids.

Our schools and standardized testing regimens neither reward nor value high creativity, which visits only a small percentage of students anyway. Yet it’s their creativity that many education leaders claim to want in their students. Sooner or later, we’ll re-examine our goals and the instruments we’re using to achieve them—and how well they’re working. Our answers are bound to be more complicated than we now allow.

Another lesson to learn is that our analysis of standardized tests bears a striking resemblance to the kind of linguistic data analysis Mr Borowiecki did. He used letters as a proxy for emotional state, just as we use standardized test scores as a proxy for math ability, literacy, or whatever.

His analysis can no longer serve a purpose in terms of making these three composers’ lives happier—since they’ve all been dead since Liszt in 1886—and test scores, while recording an important snapshot of the trajectory of our schools, should not be presented as being helpful to any actual student or parent, especially if data are returned to schools so far after the test was administered that students and teachers have moved on in any significant way.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.