Episode 8: The Secret of Musical Genius

How are some humans able to create music that changes those who hear it?

Soul singer Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio during 'The Weight' recording session on January 9, 1969 in New York City, New York.
Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Mozart wowed audiences as a child. The Beatles blew away Ed Sullivan. Beyonce hypnotized Super Bowl crowds. The world has been enthralled by those we call musical geniuses. But what defines a musical genius? And how does society recognize it? We probe these questions as we examine the life and career of Aretha Franklin, a transformational figure in American music, and the rise of a young prodigy, Keedron Bryant.

TRANSCRIPT

KEEDRON BRYANT (CHILD PRODIGY): My name is Keedron Bryant, and I'm a recording artist, and I'm 13 years old.

PETER GWIN (HOST): Keedron is a child prodigy.

BRYANT: I started singing at the age of five years old, and around seven, that's when I really got serious and started really practicing and watching videos.

GWIN: In 2019 he won youth male vocalist of the year at the Gospel Choice Music Awards in Georgia. In 2020 he performed on network television.

DEM JOINTZ (PRODUCER): First of all, his voice is amazing.

GWIN: That’s music producer Dem Jointz.

JOINTZ: His voice is only gonna get better. He's only going to get better and more brilliant as an artist.

GWIN: Dem has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Eminem, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Kanye West, and Christina Aguilera. He’s seen their creative processes up close and knows what top talent sounds like. And now he’s working with Keedron, the 13-year-old contemporary R&B and gospel singer.

BRYANT: I like old school music. So I listen to like the Jackson Five and Boyz to Men and other groups and R&B stuff.

GWIN: Man, you just crushed me. You said Boyz to Men was old school. That makes me feel really old.

(Bryant laughs)

GWIN: So I know your first love is gospel, and we were hoping that maybe we could hear you sing a church song.

BRYANT: Yes.

GWIN: All right, man, here we go. It’s Keedron, live on National Geographic.

BRYANT: There is a name I love. I love to hear. And I love to sing …

GWIN: History is filled with inspiring stories about astonishing young musicians like Keedron. If you Google musical prodigies, you’ll get hundreds of hits—there’s the 10-year-old violinist who plays with the famous philharmonic, the 9-year-old composing symphonies, and the 11-year-old blind jazz pianist. The list goes on and on. Some of these prodigies go on to amazing careers and eventually are recognized as geniuses—like Chopin or Mozart. And others vanish into history.

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine. And this is Overheard: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This month, the National Geographic channel series Genius returns for a third season with a look at the life of Aretha Franklin. So we decided to delve into the question of what makes a musical genius. How do their brains work? What causes their creations to have such powerful effects on listeners? And how does society decide who is a genius and who is just talented?

More after the break.

Humans have been recognizing that people were born with special talents for millenia. We get the word “genius” from Latin.

DEAN SIMONTON (PROFESSOR): And in the time of ancient Rome, each person was born with a genius.

GWIN: That’s emeritus psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton. He studies human intelligence, creativity, and greatness at UC Davis.

SIMONTON: And this genius was like your guardian angel. And this angel follows you around your entire life and kind of looked out for you, and essentially defined what was unique about you. And later on, it got attached to things where if you had some special talent for something—special ability—you're a great carpenter, you know, you're a great poet. They would call you a genius.

GWIN: But as time went on people began raising the bar for who was a “genius.”

SIMONTON: Particularly during the romantic period in Western history, the term genius was extended to really stellar achievements. Being a carpenter no longer cut it. I'm sorry for that pun. You had to actually do something truly outstanding. So someone like Michelangelo would be considered a genius, for example, or Shakespeare or Newton.

GWIN: Or on the musical front, there’s a youngster in Austria named Mozart.

SIMONTON: Mozart was actually the first child prodigy to ever be studied by a scientist.

GWIN: Really?

SIMONTON: Yes. He was doing a tour with his dad of London when he was eight years old, and people were just blown away by how well he could perform.

GWIN: A scholar went to Mozart’s apartment to study him and his father.

SIMONTON: And what was just really kind of amazing is that he would give them tests to do, and like he’d give them piano duets that they'd never seen before and they'd have to sight-read. And even though eight-year-old Mozart learned how to play the harpsichord from his dad, he outperformed his father. In fact, every once in a while, he’d give his dad dirty looks, whenever his dad would make mistakes. It was absolutely phenomenal.

GWIN: What comes next is a career that alters history. Music seems to pour out of Mozart—symphonies, operas, concertos, string quartets, piano sonatas, and more. Unlike Beethoven and other brilliant composers of that era, Mozart writes music in every major genre of the day. His creativity and mastery seem to know no bounds. But where did all this come from? And how was Mozart different from the other talented composers of his day?

GWIN: OK, so what is going on in Mozart's eight-year-old brain that’s not happening in other eight-year-old brains?

SIMONTON: Well, there's two things here. Genius is both born and made, you know, it's not just something that, you know, you come out of the womb and you say, give me a harpsichord. Right. OK. He came from a musical family.

GWIN: Mozart’s father was an accomplished composer in his own right. But once he realized how talented his son was, he bent over backwards to support him.

SIMONTON: He basically says, my career is over. My career is to be his manager.

GWIN: That’s an important key to who Mozart becomes. In Simonton’s research, he’s come across several common factors in the lives of geniuses. One is having a family that recognizes the child’s talent and cultivates it—that’s crucial to future success. Mozart’s father was a composer who intensively trained him from a young age.

And that brings us to another genius quality: Being in the right place at the right time. The Mozart family moves to Vienna, which in the 1700s is ground zero for the music world. And young Mozart is surrounded by greatness.

SIMONTON: There's something called the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times, in German—or literally “times ghost.” And he lived in a kind of a golden age of classical music, where you had Haydn and all these other great composers composing all over the place and all these courts and in concert halls. And so he had that environment going for him as well. So, you know, you put all that together. He was the right person at the right place at the right time to exhibit that kind of genius.

GWIN: Almost like it was a hothouse effect.

And it’s not just music. These are the late 1700s—revolutionary times in both the Old and New Worlds. And Mozart isn’t immune to the political energy around him. He composes his first great operatic work, the Marriage of Figaro, in 1786. It tells a story of class struggle in which servants rebel against a corrupt master’s sexual advances.

SIMONTON: Yeah, it's a hothouse effect. And that's why it's extremely rare to see genius just come out of nowhere, you know, just like all of a sudden. There's absolutely no examples of genius in this particular culture, and then all of a sudden you see somebody. That is extremely rare for that to happen.

GWIN: But there’s something else Simonton identified that music geniuses need: opportunity to show their talent. You see, there was actually another prodigy in the Mozart family—one you’ve probably never heard of.

Maria Anna Mozart was reportedly as talented as her younger brother, if not more. The siblings performed together, and Maria Anna was frequently billed first. But once she reached marriageable age, her family forbade her from touring. She made musical compositions, but they’ve been lost, and she’s largely forgotten.

So we’ve looked at how geniuses are cultivated, but where does the original talent come from? That special gift that is shaped and developed. What’s happening in the brain of a musical genius?

CHARLES LIMB (OTOLARYNGOLOGIST): So I run a lab called the Sound of Music Perception Lab at UC San Francisco. And we were very lucky to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to look at the brain mechanisms of creative geniuses, you know, musical geniuses.

GWIN: That’s Charles Limb. He’s an otolaryngologist at UC San Francisco, which means he’s a hearing specialist. One of the things he studies is how the brains of creative geniuses work, especially musical geniuses.

LIMB: We hesitate to use that terminology because, as I said, as scientists, we don't even know how to define what it means to be a genius. But what we're looking for is statistical outliers, you know, people who if you just look at the statistics of what they're doing and kind of how singularly unique–you know, there are some musicians where you just think, Oh, wow, this is hard to believe. And it's those artists that we're trying to identify and bring them into the lab and scan their brains while they're doing musical things.

GWIN: Limb has examined lots of impressive musicians.

LIMB: We were able to scan the brain of Gabriela Montero, the amazing Venezuelan pianist who can improvise an entire classical music concert. You know, night after night she does the second half of her programs is often fully improvised from a theme from the crowd.

GWIN: He has his subjects go into an MRI machine. And then he watches their brain activity while they’re composing music.

LIMB: When a highly trained artist goes into a spontaneous creative mode, that they are shutting off certain parts of their brain.

GWIN: Trained musicians were able to suppress the parts of their brains that criticize themselves. They were also able to go quickly from having an idea for music to being able to play that music.

Of course, that might come from practice, rather than innate talent. It’s hard to figure out how, or even if, genius brains are actually intrinsically different.

LIMB: The reason why I'm tip-toeing a little bit here is because I would never say we're going to find the answers. What I would say is, we're going to try to get closer to the truth.

GWIN: And that truth seems to center around this.

LIMB: This is where I think your history, your memories, your self-consciousness, your pathos, your humanity, your humility, all of these things, I think, ultimately impact that. It's a filter. And the music that's coming out of you is going through the filter of who you are—channeled through your body.

GWIN: So we’ve identified some of the tools in the genius toolkit, but plenty more are shrouded in mystery. So now it’s time to dig a little deeper by examining a musician who had all these tools and then some: the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. That’s what the second half of our show is about: looking at how Aretha Franklin became a genius.

A lot of geniuses have origin stories. Little Mozart famously played for Emperor Franz I. And Aretha Franklin’s story involved yet another famous musician.

Aretha grew up in Detroit. Smokey Robinson, who would go on to become a renowned Motown musician himself, lived just down the street. And he was friends with one of Aretha’s brothers.

One day, he went into the Franklin family home, and he heard a voice singing. He followed the sound of the music and found six-year-old Aretha. He was completely dumbfounded by her skill.

A lot of stars have to align to create a musical genius, and Aretha Franklin very easily could’ve been another bright talent that just never rose out of obscurity. But Aretha, like Mozart, had a father who was totally devoted to her success. Reverend C.L. Franklin was one of the most famous gospel preachers in the country. And he wanted to make his daughter an even bigger deal.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL (PROFESSOR): I think he was really blown away by the talent that she had, right? And knew that he needed to nurture it very early.

GWIN: That’s Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University. Mark says Aretha’s dad trained her. He filled the house with mentors.

NEAL: Part of his job was to make sure that she was surrounded by some of the best musicians, gospel and otherwise, that she could be. You got folks like Dinah Washington, you got Ella Fitzgerald, you know, Reverend James Cleveland, who himself is no more than a teenager, is living in the house with them.

GWIN: That’s something Aretha and Mozart had in common. When Aretha was in her early teens, her father took her on the gospel circuit with him, where she performed for huge audiences.

NEAL: Given the way that she was bred and raised and nurtured in this environment, you know, there was no way she wasn't going to become what she became. I would argue that, you know, she is someone who went through the most elaborate finishing school of any musician.

GWIN: Another important trait geniuses often share is experiencing trauma. When Aretha Franklin was ten, her mother died suddenly of a heart attack.

DENEEN BROWN (WRITER): It struck her with an immense, very deep, deep, deep sadness.

GWIN: That’s DeNeen L. Brown, a National Geographic writer who wrote about Aretha Franklin for the magazine.

BROWN: It just left her with this deep source of pain that her family and her siblings often said was never healed.

GWIN: You’d think a tragic event like that could have thrown off Aretha’s singing career, or at least distracted her for a while. But what if the experience of losing a parent, as horrible as that is, acted as a catalyst and helped develop her talent?

SIMONTON: The idea of the tortured artist going through all sorts of trauma has some truth to it. They are more likely to lose one or both parents at a very young age.

GWIN: It’s not that artistic geniuses need suffering specifically. But something has to throw their lives off the normal track.

SIMONTON: And for an artist, that's extremely important. If you don't have a different perspective to take on the world, then what are you going to do your art about?

GWIN: The year her mother died, Aretha was scheduled for her first solo performance at church. She gets up, looking like a lost child.

NEAL: You know, she clearly had a kind of sadness in her eyes.

GWIN: Aretha stands behind the piano, looking out over a crowd of congregants. She pauses.

Her sister, who’s sitting in the audience, worries that Aretha won’t be able to perform. Aretha has been an emotional wreck all week, crying constantly.

And then … she starts singing. And to everyone’s surprise, it’s not terrible. It’s not even fine. It’s great. She somehow sings gospel that’s filled with blues.

BROWN: That sadness transformed itself in her voice, and the way she was able to compose and empower songs and transmit the sadness into something else that could connect to audiences.

GWIN: And that special ability would turn out to be incredibly important for her time and place.

Aretha appeared on the scene during an explosion of Black musical culture. Remember how we talked about Mozart coming on the scene during Europe’s political upheaval and in the midst of its golden classical music moment?

Well, in the 1960s, Motown was taking off. The radio waves were filled with new Black voices. But it wasn’t just music. The civil rights movement is building momentum, protests are popping up with more frequency and fervor.

And Aretha is coming of age—as an independent woman and as an artist—right in the middle of all that creative energy.

BROWN: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would come visit her father's church in Detroit and then come to her house after church for dinner.

GWIN: One of her most famous songs, “Respect”, became so famous because her audience could relate to it.

BROWN: Sometimes music is used in revolutions to transmit messages, right? Aretha Franklin's voice embodied this revolutionary period in the United States, where Black people were in the streets demanding respect.

GWIN: Black comedian and activist Dick Gregory said that on the radio “you’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour. You’d only hear King on the news.”

Aretha’s legacy could’ve stopped right there: A dominant voice cresting on the wave of R&B and civil rights, and then gracefully receding as the tides of history shift. But there’s something else geniuses tend to have in common. When they master a field, they ask: What can I try next?

SIMONTON: You're just willing to try out different things. You'll try out different foods. You're open to different cultures. You are open to different values. You may explore different religious beliefs.

GWIN: And that’s what moves them beyond what other people have done and into new possibilities.

So how does Aretha compare? OK, Aretha started in gospel, became a gospel superstar, and could have stayed in gospel forever. But like Mozart composing in all the genres of his day, Aretha explores all sorts of styles—R&B, soul, pop.

NEAL: Aretha's target is that she could sing anything that you put in front of her and eventually master whatever genre it belonged to.

GWIN: But there’s one poignant moment that occurs late in her career that showed her range in a way few could’ve anticipated, and in the minds of many critics, seals her legacy as a unique musical genius.

OK, so it’s the 1998 Grammys. Luciano Pavarotti, a classically trained opera star, is set to sing the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” for a TV audience of millions.

But the unthinkable happens: Pavarotti gets sick. Thirty minutes after the Grammys began, he calls the show’s producers and says he can’t perform.

Backstage, it’s chaos. The producers are scrambling to find some way out of this disaster.

Aretha Franklin happens to be performing at the Grammys too. A producer gets an idea: let’s ask her to sing “Nessun Dorma.”

So he runs to Aretha’s dressing room. He pops a cassette into a boombox and plays the song for her. And says, Hey, can you sing this? Like onstage, now?

NEAL: She said, you know, I'll do it.

GWIN: So the audience has already watched her sing “Respect,” with Dan Ackroyd and the other members of the Blues Brothers doing the backing vocals. No big surprise, the Queen of Soul doing her special thing, right? But they don’t know this is coming. Then Sting comes on stage and informs the crowd that Pavarotti is sick, but that a friend has agreed to step in at a moment’s notice … Ladies and gentlemen, Aretha Franklin.

NEAL: But when she walks onstage, you can hear audibly in the crowd this heightened sense of expectation because they really don't know what's about to happen. They don't know what this is going to sound like.

GWIN: She crushes it, of course. Aretha doesn’t speak Italian yet she imbues the lyrics with palpable emotion. The music has been arranged in a key that’s suited specifically to Pavaroti’s voice—but Aretha adjusts her voice to match it. The crowd gasps and cries out as she powers through the notes, and at the end gives her a standing ovation. It’s a performance only a musical genius could pull off. We’ve linked to the video in the show notes, if you want to see for yourself.

BROWN: It is awe-inspiring. So here's Aretha Franklin, who's the Queen of Soul, you know, singing this aria.

GWIN: So it wasn’t just one thing that made Aretha a genius. It was a confluence of very specific, rare ingredients that came together at a precise moment in history.

NEAL: Aretha could have only happened at the time that she happened because of all these forces.

(Keedron singing gospel.)

GWIN: So what about Keedron? He may have some of the raw ingredients for genius, but can he ride at the front of the current cultural wave?

During the George Floyd protests this summer, Keedron’s mom wrote a song about a young, Black man fearing for his life. Keedron read the lyrics and prayed on them, trying to focus.

BRYANT: You have to get in the mindset. You just can't go on and sing about a killing of racism in the world, and then you're thinking about rainbows and candyland and stuff like that.

GWIN: He recorded himself singing the song and then posted it to Instagram. That’s how Dem Jointz, his producer, discovered him. Dem was watching TV when his girlfriend played Keedron’s video on her phone. Dem overheard it.

JOINTZ: And you know how certain things, you’re either watching something or you listening to something, and it gives you that moment where it hits you in the gut, you know what I mean?

GWIN: Totally.

JOINTZ: It was his voice and the pain it sounded—that went along with his voice and his message. I didn’t know who the kid was. But I felt like I wanted to be a part of that.

GWIN: Dem takes the video and mixes Keedron’s voice with music and then gets in touch with Keedron and his family. Meanwhile, the video goes totally viral—we included a link in the show notes. Warner Records and Dem Jointz’s label U Made Us What We Are sign Keedron to a record deal.

BRYANT: So, I was at my house, and they called my mom’s phone and my mom was like, who’s this, and they said, Jay-Z. And we just started screaming, and then Beyonce said, “And Beyonce. ” So then we were like, Oh, my gosh, wow. And so, I mean, like running around.

GWIN: So immediately you start singing a lot of Jay-Z and Beyonce songs, right?

BRYANT: Yes.

GWIN: The question's got to be like, Hey, Jay-Z, let's do a collab, right?

BRYANT: Well, I didn’t ask him, but I definitely want to do a collab with him.

GWIN: All right, Jay-Z, if you're listening, National Geographic is offering up its studios for you and Keedron to do a collab, so...

If Keedron wants to reach genius, he’s going to need that perfect storm of nature, nurture, and luck. Jay-Z, ball’s in your court.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the Queen of Soul. And if you want to learn more about her extraordinary life, check out our magazine story about her in the April issue of National Geographic. And also we feature her in the new season of Genius, an original series on National Geographic.

Also, we’ve got links to hear the song that made Keedron famous, and the opera performance that cemented Aretha’s genius.

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.

CREDITS:

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Ilana Strauss, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Laura Sim, and Carla Wills.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Julie Beer and Robin Palmer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. And that’s all for this season, but Amy and I will be back soon with more new episodes. Thanks for listening. And see y'all soon.

SHOW NOTES:

Watch the Genius: Aretha, a series about Aretha’s life, now streaming on Hulu. And check out the magazine piece about her and this journey through the career of the Queen of Soul.

Immerse yourself in the genius of Aretha Franklin and her music with this playlist https://lnk.to/ArethaGenius!NGE. Available on Spotify and Apple Music.

And of course, check out the song that made Keedron viral and the opera performance that cemented Aretha’s genius.