How the “Genius Composer” Myth Hurts Everyone (Especially Women)

Many people bemoan the fact that women remain a small minority in the field of music composition. This has changed, and continues to change, for the better, but we have a long way to go. In this blog post, I’m going to make a concrete suggestion about how we might engage more young women, especially teenagers and college students, in the field. 

In this post, I will argue that if we actually want greater diversity in the composition of contemporary music, we may need to change the way we talk about composition. In particular, we may need to give up some of our ideas about genius composers.

I’ll start with a brief story. Two weeks ago, I was part of a residency with AnyWhen Ensemble at Oregon State University. My colleagues worked with jazz students and ensembles, while I taught a career workshop and … wait for it … guest-lectured at a composition seminar.

To find myself standing in front of a composition class (with my friend Doug, a legitimate professional composer) was startling, to say the least. After all, I purchased Finale just six months ago, and recently wrote my first fully notated works for ensemble. I primarily think of myself as a violinist and songwriter, not a composer. Yet there I was, standing before a group of eager and open-minded undergraduates.

While I was delighted to talk to them, what I really wanted to do was sneak around to other classrooms -- the violin studios, the choir sectionals, the music education seminars -- and whisper: Psst! Have you ever thought about making your own music? Want to talk about it? I wanted to talk to everyone at Oregon State who, like me, doesn’t identify as a composer, but who creates, or aspires to create, original music.

I believe there is a great deal of untapped musical creativity in these “non-composer” spaces at our schools of music. Why? Because for a very long time in classical music, labeling yourself as a composer has meant entering an intimidating and highly gendered (masculinized) space*. Looking around at the composition seminar at Oregon -- which is taught by a woman, but had only 1 woman out of 10 students -- I wondered about all the people who weren’t in the room, simply because of preconceived notions about what composition is or must be.

Here are some of the notions I had about composition throughout my twenties:

  • It is inherently complex, theoretical, and mathematical

  • It requires rare brilliance and genius

  • It involves technology and software and stuff that is over my head

  • Being a composer requires engagement in philosophical and aesthetic pissing matches

  • If you write easy or pretty music, you are a wimp/probably a girl

  • … therefore, it is not for me, because I am a woman and a Pisces and an ENFJ and I have a lot of feelings and I don’t know how to use Max MSP.

As you can see, these preconceived notions echo the hesitations of many intelligent young women who feel unwelcome in male-dominated fields like technology and philosophy*. Because of gender socialization, young women in particular may have a difficult time embracing the identity that classical music has historically constructed around “the composer.”

A 2015 study, done by an interdisciplinary team from Princeton and Urbana-Champaign, found that a field’s “perceived importance of brilliance or genius” was the single biggest factor that lowered women’s involvement in said field. “The argument is about the culture of the field,” one study author explained. “In our current cultural climate, where women are stereotypically seen as less likely to possess these special intellectual gifts, emphasizing that those gifts are required for success is going to have a differential effect on men and women.

Translation: if we want to get more women involved in composition, we may have to stop acting like composing requires particular genius or brilliance, and instead invite a wide variety of musicians to learn, work hard, and get their hands dirty in order to improve.

I imagine many people would resist this idea of demystifying (even democratizing?) composition. When I look at how composition is taught, and the division of labor in schools of music, it’s almost like we’re making composition seem super hard, remote, and specialized on purpose. It’s almost like we have a need to justify the continued existence of composition departments, in an increasingly corporatized university system that is hostile to the arts ... 

This is why it feels like sacrilege for me to write a post saying, “We need to stop acting like composing is this special thing, only reserved for certain people.” Because when I say that, it may sound like I am threatening one of the last remaining bastions of respect and financial stability and support for the creation of new music, which I totally don’t want to do! But I do want to acknowledge how, by protecting notions of genius and difficulty around composition, we are keeping a lot of people away from the field.

Let me clarify what I am NOT saying:

  • I am not saying that composing is easy.

  • I am not saying that composers are not brilliant.

  • I am not saying “everyone can do it” equally well.

  • I am not saying we should dismantle composition departments because they are elitist and patriarchal … although they often are.

What I AM saying is simply that our field should acknowledge ways in which the traditional definition of “composer” may exclude, intimidate, and alienate. What I am saying is that we would benefit from talking about composition in a way that explicitly welcomes those the field has traditionally left out.

The de-mystification of composing could have a ton of positive ripple effects. Chief among them, of course, is that more women, people of color, and self-trained/outsider musicians might actually consider walking into a composition seminar room.

Another big potential benefit? If composing was something everyone did (or at least tried), performers would have a better attitude about playing new music. This is a big one. I really think, if we made composition study more commonplace, we’d see a big reduction in anti-composer snark. Part of (some) performers’ bad attitudes towards composers is actually a reaction against this idea of superiority and genius. Performers are all like, “You think you’re Beethoven!? Well then, why did you write XYZ dumb thing?” It’s not pretty.

All performers should experience the difficulty of conceiving a musical idea, putting it on paper, and watching another human being grapple with it. It is hard, humbling, and exhilarating, and they’ll never look at scores the same way again.

What do you think? Could a deliberate de-mystification of composing help our field?

* Anytime anyone says anything about women in any field, the following disclaimer is often required: Yes, there are tons of accomplished women in science, technology, philosophy, and music composition. Even so, women remain in the minority. My operating assumption here is that women successfully enter the field in spite of these challenges and barriers, and that more women would participate (i.e., women would no longer be such a small minority) if said barriers were removed.