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Smart Kids

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Child prodigies seem to crop up in music more often than any other art. There are occasional exceptions like Picasso, and there will always be a need for child actors. But music stands apart. For the opportunities for excellence it gives the very young it’s more like maths or chess.

None of the three require any language skills, which helps: there isn’t that initial barrier to get over. But neither does painting, yet few galleries show paintings by children and teenagers – the collection of early Picassos at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona being an exception.

Like chess and maths, however, music is often highly structured. Composing – particularly in earlier centuries – was as much a game of rules as it was of inspiration. If you understood the rules, like the Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen or the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, you could get a long way. Add a dash of naïve insight and you could really do well: Schubert wrote a new piece every few days throughout his teens, including Geheimnis and Der König in Thule. Music’s combination of rules and structure with a dash of the spiritual has probably contributed to the popular theory (not scientifically supported) that children who listen to Mozart will have a higher IQ.

Mozart himself was perhaps the most famous prodigy of all. His childhood accomplishments – playing harpsichord at four, writing his first music at five, published at eight, internationally famous by 10 – are central to our image of him as a great composer. His first true opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, was written when he was just 11.

Because Mozart is classical music’s leading figure his achievements infect how we think about classical music itself. He started young, so we think all musicians should do too – we even host televised competitions for young performers. Barely a month goes by in the news without a story of the latest prodigy violinist or pianist to emerge from Asia, Russia or North America. Is that a product of music itself, or of the way we think about it?