The Creativity Myth

This post by Kevin Ashton originally appeared on Medium on 10/29/14.

In 1815, Germany’s General Music Journal published a letter in which Mozart described his creative process:

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer; say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once. When I proceed to write down my ideas the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

In other words, Mozart’s greatest symphonies, concertos, and operas came to him complete when he was alone and in a good mood. He needed no tools to compose them. Once he had finished imagining his masterpieces, all he had to do was write them down.

This letter has been used to explain creation many times. Parts of it appear in The Mathematician’s Mind, written by Jacques Hadamard in 1945; in Creativity: Selected Readings, edited by Philip Vernon in 1976; in Roger Penrose’s award-winning 1989 book, The Emperor’s New Mind; and it is alluded to in Jonah Lehrer’s 2012 bestseller Imagine. It influenced the poets Pushkin and Goethe and the playwright Peter Shaffer. Directly and indirectly, it helped shape common beliefs about creating.

But there is a problem. Mozart did not write this letter. It is a forgery. This was first shown in 1856 by Mozart’s biographer Otto Jahn and has been confirmed by other scholars since.


Read the full post on Medium.