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For Mozart, Misery Inspired Masterpieces

Beethoven and Liszt were also more creative following periods of anguish and grief.

By Tom Jacobs


Mozart. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The tortured artist is a familiar figure in literature, an embodiment of the belief that suffering is a catalyst to creativity. Evidence to that effect, however, has been extremely mixed. Some researchers agree with this popular notion, while others insist happy emotions actually induce innovation. Still others suggest mixed emotions are the true drivers of great work.

So which is it? Well, a close look at three of the greatest musical geniuses of all time — Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt — provides evidence that misery really can inspire masterpieces.

Polish economist Karol Jan Borowiecki, who previously examined the link between art and war, charted the emotional life of the three composers via their correspondence. He found “creativity, measured by the number of important compositions (they produced), is causally attributable to negative moods — in particular, sadness.”

For those men, at least, a melancholy mood summoned the muse.

Borowiecki chose those three musical geniuses because each of them left behind a trove of personal letters spanning their entire creative lives, which were collected and published after their deaths. Using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count text analysis software, he analyzed the emotional content of each piece of correspondence.

Specifically, the software identified the presence of 406 words indicating positive emotions, including love, joyful,and nice, and 499 denoting negative feelings, such as hurt, grief,and nervous. It then characterized the emotional tone of the letter by noting which feeling words were most and least prevalent.

A melancholy mood summoned the muse.

Borowiecki then compared the emotional states revealed in those letters with the number of important works the composer wrote the following year. He defined “important” as “compositions that made a significant contribution to the classical canon” — i.e., pieces we still listen to today. He also noted other important life events such as employment, marital status, physical health, and the sudden death of a close relative.

Borowiecki found obtaining a permanent position — and therefore job security — resulted in a reduced creative output. So did “being married or living in cohabitation.” This suggests there’s something to the notion of inspiration arising out of necessity. Hunger, or fear of paying next month’s rent, not only focuses the mind — it can apparently stimulate creativity.

On the other side of the equation, he also found sadness — and, to a lesser degree, anxiety and anger — had “a causal impact” on the number of major compositions the men created. Specifically, he calculated that “an increase in negative emotions by about 36.7 percent inspires one additional important composition the following year.”

“Since depression is strongly related to sadness, and is sometimes even defined as a state of chronic sadness,” he writes in the Review of Economics and Statistics, “this result comes very close to previous claims made by psychologists that depression leads to increased creativity.”

As Borowiecki concedes, a data set of three hardly provides definitive proof of this thesis. But if his findings inspire depressed people to try their hand at a creative task, that’s a good thing: Another recent study found doing so tends to increase happiness, even if the final result falls short of the Moonlight Sonata.

As pianist Jeremy Denk wrote, “Beethoven needed the strength and consolation that he poured into his music.” If he had just been a little more miserable, we might have gotten a 10th symphony.