Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach with 3 of his children
The Bach musical dynasty lasted for 200 years and is therefore at the heart of the question…”Is musical excellence inherited? Is there a musical brain?”
I don’t know whether we are still debating the nature/nurture conundrum or if it is now the nature plus nurture hypothesis. Knowing as we do that nature and nurture work in tandem and form an alliance that goes back as far as the womb, are there instances, like in the musical realm, where one plays the major role? In other words, is musical talent built into the genes?
What makes this question difficult to answer is that in the great musical families the milieu was very propitious for nurturing; young members were taught by the older ones and found it natural to follow in their footsteps. There were great artisanal musicians just as there were families of carpenters and of millers whose craft was handed down from fathers to sons. For example, the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin was a descendant of 200 years of Couperin organists.
Johann Sebastian Bach was the best known of fifty eminent musicians and composers named Bach. In the town of Erfurt, Germany all musicians were referred to as Bachs. Four of his 20 children (by several wives) composed music which is still being performed today: Carl Philipp Emmanuel was the most famous of his sons. Johann Christian Bach (known as the London Bach) was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. Johann Christoph Friederich and Wilhelm Friedman were prolific Bach family composers.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was trained by his composer father and soon eclipsed him. Leopold Mozart is now mostly remembered for his Toy symphony which is still being played occasionally.
Johann Strauss (The Elder) of Vienna (1804-1849) wrote waltzes, polkas and other dances and was the father of famous violinists. His son Johann Strauss II (the Younger) was the Waltz King and best known for The Blue Danube and the operetta Die Fledermaus. Joseph Strauss played in the family orchestra and composed dances and marches. The New Year’s Day concert in Vienna , a lavish affair, each year features the music of all three Strausses.
Alessandro Scarlatti, the Italian Baroque composer, produced operas and cantatas. His son Domenico was even more famous and bridged the Baroque and Classical styles of music.
Pepe Romero (1944-) the classical flamenco guitarist founded a quartet with his father and his two brothers Celin and Angel. He studied with his father Celodonio and made his debut at age 7. The composer Rodrigo wrote the work “Concierto para una Fiesta” for them.
Wynton Marsalis belongs to a family of jazz musicians from New Orleans. His father Ellis was his mentor and, with Wynton’s brothers, (Branford, Delfeayo and Jason) started a “Jazz Renaissance”. Wynton studied both jazz and classical music and excels in both.
So there we have a variety of musical families with a rich environment and plenty of guidance, nurturing and role models. And we are back to the question: Does practice make perfect or does musical ability run in the family?
And back to the usual identical twin studies. Experiments show that a twin who practices more than his brother (her sister) does not achieve more. No amount of lessons will turn a tone deaf child or one who does not process sound or detect differences in pitch, melody or rhythm into a Mozart. Without manual dexterity you will not become a good pianist. In other words success is not just a matter of determination.
This does not mean that if you have the talent you do not need to practice. And so, although musical ability is mostly inherited, and talent does run in families, the families who possess it also have the desire and determination to cultivate it.