Apologies if this question is off-topic.

I read in a book somewhere (I think it was Think Like a Freak) that many child pianists today would outshine famous prodigies of the past, for example Mozart, in terms of their technique.

The book further claimed that a pianist who was hailed as a "virtuoso" for being able to perform particularly difficult pieces would now be criticised as sloppy, and that hundreds of Julliard applicants can and do play with more technical accuracy.

In other words — the standard for musical proficiency has been raised to such a degree that people once regarded as extraordinarily adept are now merely mediocre technicians.

The authors' thesis was that people have gotten much better at many different fields because they have "learned how to learn", but now I'm wondering if they were stretching the truth to support their point.

Could Music SE please weigh in? Is it true that a merely "good" pianist today possesses far more technical skill than the greats of the past?

EDIT: I am only concerned about whether the technical skills of pianists considered legendary in the past would merely be considered average today. I apologise if the terms "prodigy" and "Mozart" has misled anyone.

  • I suspect they're confusing technical ability with interpretational ability. – Carl Witthoft Apr 26 '17 at 12:21
  • Thanks @CarlWitthoft. With all due respect to all the commenters here, I feel that they have somewhat missed the point. I am only concerned about whether the field of piano has advanced so much that the technical skills of pianists considered good in the past would be considered average today, and I apologise if the terms "prodigy" and "Mozart" has misled anyone. – Lieu Zheng Hong Apr 26 '17 at 12:24
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    There's no doubt that, with or without the advances in instrument design, current-day players have far greater technical skill. We've become an incredibly stratified society, meaning that kids aiming at a performance career do nothing but practice, and with advanced support equipment (videoa analysis, e.g.), while 400 years ago mostplayers had other commitments in their lives. – Carl Witthoft Apr 26 '17 at 12:27
  • Thank you so much @CarlWitthoft. If you could answer instead of comment (perhaps with a few examples) I would be delighted to upvote you. – Lieu Zheng Hong Apr 26 '17 at 12:30
  • I can't speak for pianists as I don't pay that much attention specifically to them. However, this does appear to be true of guitarists. 20 years ago Eddie Van Halen was considered an excellent player and Yngwie Malmsteen was a prodigy. Now you can go on Youtube and find amateur players who are not just mocking these advanced players, but writing and performing their own extremely complex pieces. However, I'm not sure if this speaks to the level of expertise raising or just the ease of exposure to those players. – DrewB Apr 26 '17 at 12:59

I'm pretty sure this is likely to get flagged as off topic - but before it does, let's weigh in with a little balance, shall we.

The author suggests that young children have learned to parrot difficult pieces to an impressive standard at a young age... better than Mozart [of whom no actual recordings exist, of course].

If we take that at face value, then it's likely the case.
Some people can learn to parrot impressive pieces whilst very young. This takes some skill.

I would say the only real comparison is if they also wrote their first pieces at 4 or 5 & an entire symphony by the time they're eight. Otherwise, all they learned to do was mimic.

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    Thanks for your answer. My question is not quite about Mozart himself or about any specific musician for that matter. I wanted to know whether it is true that the average musical ability (technical ability, specifically) improved to such a degree such that people once regarded as extraordinary prodigies are now merely mediocre. – Lieu Zheng Hong Apr 26 '17 at 10:46
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    As no-one has any recordings, I don't think anyone is ever going to know. The simple theory, that hammering small children through hours of practice can pay dividends on their skill [if not their mental state] works cannot be ignored; but whether that makes them better who can say? – Tetsujin Apr 26 '17 at 10:49
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    I already did. I dismissed it as 'parroting' & 'no-one alive today ever heard Mozart actually play', so there is no comparison, only speculation. – Tetsujin Apr 26 '17 at 10:56
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    I'm getting worried that you actually consider some of these YouTube child prodigies as 'good'. Very often they are just clockwork, no feel at all. It's just not all about getting the right notes in the right order. – Tetsujin Apr 26 '17 at 11:05
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    @LieuZhengHong Technical perfection is actually the last thing I look for in a performer. In fact, I don't look for it at all. I don't want it. A computer can be technically perfect. Music is a form of communication. It's a compelling form because it enables the communication of emotions in a unique and abstract way. Technical ability can serve the communication of emotion, but it is not necessary and sometimes people confuse technical ability for good musicianship to the detriment of the music. Compare Kurt Cobain with Yngwie Malmsteen. – Todd Wilcox Apr 26 '17 at 13:34

I think this is seriously misrepresenting who and what Mozart was. Yes, he had a certain renown as a child prodigy, but music reproduction from a score was not really as highly rated a skill as it is now: a "prodigy" was about more than being a good player.

For example, he wrote the (commissioned) one-act opera Bastien und Bastienne at age 12. That's not usually the kind of thing child prodigies of today do.


The comparison over performance standards and technique is pointless. Mozart never played an instrument that was remotely similar to a modern concert grand piano, because such a thing had not been invented, and it wouldn't have been possible to build it using 18th-century technology even it somebody has thought of the idea.

And Mozart's piano music is very unlikely be played by applicants for colleges like Julliard - because the "child virtuosos" who apply think its far to simple to be worth bothering with, and the professors (if they have any sense!) know that it's actually far too difficult for teenage kids to understand.

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    This is what happens when a modern young piano virtuoso tries to play Mozart. The first attempt seems more like a fish riding a bicycle than "music" IMO - but she's a quick learner! youtube.com/watch?v=5Bnv9WYAMlQ – user19146 Apr 26 '17 at 11:57

I think that it depends what you mean by comparing them, child prodigies today can play the difficult pieces, but lack the same ability to understand chord structures and write that it is believed that Mozart had.

Experiment: Try asking a 8 year old prodigy to write a symphony and compare the two.


Ok, let take a step back.

Your talking about the ability to play mucsic from a score without making mistakes. My computer can do that, and it sounds "horrible". Yes it's enough when playing around with scores to hear if a chord matches, or if a certain passage sounds the way I want it to, but it's a far, far, cry from good sounding music.

A lot of musical instruction (including top notch schools like Julliard) tend to be failing at teaching this most important difference. Music is an expression of thought, emotion, and ideas, not mathematical reference points, tones, prescribed chords, and technical ability (to play exactly what is written).

A wonderful, awesome playing of "music" may have 80%-90% mistakes, and still sound wonderful. It's about the piece's ability to convey then it is if that C4 is a perfect 261.63 Hz.

So just because a person (especially a child) can play all the "notes" correctly, doesn't mean they understand or can even correctly convey an emotion any better then my computer can.

If you have every listened to a passage that made you laugh or cry, or truly made you feel a strong emotion, then tries to recapture that emotion by listening to different people play the same piece, you will understand.

A child can not understand religion, worship, and reverence how can they possibly play "Requiem". Sure they get the notes right, but does it stir in you the feeling of being in church and undertaking some holy and sanctified ritual? Does it make you feel like your at the same time, "playing" with the ritual on the very edge of sacrilege. These are not concepts that a child has the capacity to understand. Keep in mind that every "player" will add their own baggage as will the audience. A person needs that baggage to be able to play decently, and that baggage comes with time.

So, yes, can a "child prodigy" smack the whites and black with more accuracy then Mozart? Probably, because every musician will tell you for 100% certanty, that technically being correct is not really what music is about, so I doubt he focused on it very much.

What he was good at was conveying emotion, beyond his years in some cases, in his pieces and playing. And while we do have child prodigies that can do that now (or at least in modern history), it's a far cry from what a lot of people stick the label on today.

One last note. For any "prodigy" or famous person, be it Mozart or Steve Jobs, there is also the "need of the world". Someone would have been a Mozart even if Morzart himself didn't exist. The music world needed one. It needed someone to facilitate the evolution of music. That's not to say it's all timing and he was "average", I just mean that there is always a component of "need" in there when someone like a Mozart is created.

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