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What Is The True Inspiration Of All Great Music?

Artists are inspired by many things, but some believe that art cannot be great without this one thing.

I remember many years ago reading the story of a singer's on stage performance. It took place during the world premiere of a great composer's much anticipated opera.

As she sang, she performed brilliantly. She sang every note perfectly. The composer, who happened to be in attendance, was seated next to a gentleman who marveled at the soprano.

"She's incredible, isn't she?" He asked. The composer simply responded, "She'll be even better when she meets someone who breaks her heart."

“No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.” - Aristotle

There are those who subscribe to the "tortured artist" theory. These people believe that the greatest artistic works/performances are rooted in pain and anguish.

Christopher Zara is one of those people. According to this 2012 article, Zara states,

"Art is a reflection of humanity, and humanity’s greatest virtue is its ability to overcome adversity. Why shouldn’t that same adversity inspire our greatest art?"

There may be some wisdom in this statement, but I believe it's not altogether true. Let's discuss why...

Historical Evidence

While Zara uses Van Gogh as a primary example of an artist whose best works were born from emotional trauma, there are many musical masterpieces that were created during times of relative tranquility.

Symphony No. 40 by Mozart serves as one of many musical examples of a work of genius that has no pain associated with it.

Handel's Messiah, represents another extraordinary work that was not composed during any particular time of adversity....

...and obviously, there are many, many more examples of musical masterpIeces composed by mentally healthy composers during untroubled times.

Scientific Evidence

While studies have shown evidence that "mental disorders were nearly 25 percent more common in creative people", the greatness of any work is primarily subjective and there's no evidence that I'm aware of that shows ALL great artistic work is driven by adversity or any kind of mental instability.

But, while we're on the subject, is there a general tendency for creative people to suffer more from mental illness than others?

According to Brain World Magazine, "A study conducted by Professor Fredrik Ullén at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health... found that many healthy and highly creative individuals had a similar dopamine system as those who suffered from schizophrenia."

Interesting... it is incumbent on all of us to educate ourselves about mental illness. It is something that is not taken seriously enough in my opinion. It is also a point of discrimination for many.

Assuming the Swedish study is conclusive, however, the only thing it actually demonstrates is some correlation or possibly a greater potential for artists to develop certain kinds of mental illness, not that their greatest creative works are influenced by it.


I would never attempt to draw any definitive conclusions about a topic this complex in such a short space, but the question presented here is certainly an interesting topic for exploration and discussion.

To take the extreme position that ALL great art is derived from pain or adversity seems to be a little far fetched.

The possibility that some art is rooted in distress and is made even greater by that adversity seems reasonable.

But what do you think? Is great art made great by pain or adversity? Let me know in the comments section...


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