By Karol Jan Borowiecki

Ideas are fundamental for the production of any creative output, whether in the arts, science or business. However, because ideas are so elusive, little is known on how they are transmitted across people. In this article I develop a novel approach to provide unique insights on how teachers influence the creative work of their students, how long this influence lasts, and what are the consequences for the students’ inventive output.

Teachers, mentors and role models influence in many ways (Rivkin et al., 2005; Rocko, 2004; Chetty et al., 2014, Waldinger, 2010). However, in creative professions it is possibly their creative or intellectual influence that matters most: how teachers shape the student’s skills and views of the craft, and in turn the nature of the work they later go on to produce. Teachers or professional leaders with wide reach can potentially even affect the direction in which entire fields move.

Academic researchers may recognize the potential for this influence, reflecting on how they themselves may have been shaped by where they did graduate work, the faculty who taught their courses or advised them.

On the one hand, instruction by subject matter experts is essential for transmitting basic principles and skills and for the ability to discern good from low-quality work. But it may also imbue students with tastes and methods of a teacher who is out of the mainstream or who does not meet contemporary standards. At the extreme, this influence may even cause bad ideas to propagate. Whether or not teachers and role models in creative fields leave an imprint on their students that shapes their future work is an empirical question.

This question is studied in the context of Western music composition over five centuries, a historically important cultural institution, and in a setting where composers’ musical lineage is well-documented, the content of their work can be directly compared, and its lasting value can be measured.

Figure 1: Map of composers by birth location in Europe

Notes: The map shows birth location for composers born in Europe and listed in Barlow and Morgenstern (1975, 1976). The data were collected by the authors (see Borowiecki, 2022, Section 4 for details).

A unique data capturing key attributes of a creative output has been compiled for ca. 15k music compositions written by hundreds of music composers. This data is used to calculate similarity measures between pairs of composers (or across compositions), which confirms that students are more similar to their teachers than to other, unconnected, contemporaneous composers.

The influence is shown to persist throughout the next 2-3 generations in a composer’s musical lineage, as many students went on to become composition teachers themselves, but the effect subsequently starts to fade. The results are also confirmed by comparing unconnected students who had a teacher in common – these students are more similar to each other than to other contemporaneous composers.

This is followed by an exploration of the consequences of the observed influence in an attempt to answer the question whether influence is a good thing? Does it cause only good ideas to persist, or bad ones too? The findings indicate that students who imitated to a greater degree a high-quality teacher were themselves more likely to become higher-quality composers. On the other hand, increased imitation of a low-quality teacher reduced students’ chances of success later in life. This stresses out the importance of the choice of the right role model.

It becomes clear that not always good ideas are in circulation, but instead some of the transmitted ideas and practices may be detrimental to the success of the young individual. This puts an additional challenge on the student who may need to carefully filter out and identify the best practices herself. These observations carry particular weight considering the potentially long-term nature of influence experienced early in a person’s life or career.

The results have implications for our understanding of the production of creative or intellectual output, specifically around questions of where ideas come from; why certain ideas get produced as opposed to others, and by whom; and what the consequences might be – questions that are of general interest and that have also a significant market implications.

About the article

Borowiecki, Karol J., “Good Reverberations? Teacher Influence in Music Composition since 1450,” Journal of Political Economy, 2022, forthcoming.

About the author

Karol Jan Borowiecki is Professor of Economics at the University of Southern Denmark.

About the image

Nadia and Lili Boulanger, teacher, sisters and composers. Wikimedia Commons.

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