Hearing “Hereditary Genius”: Musicality and the Rhetorical Foundations of Eugenics

[Presented at the 2021 meeting of the American Musicological Society, online.]


Francis Galton (1822–1911), cousin to Charles Darwin and founder of the discipline of eugenics, does not feature prominently in the intellectual history of music studies. Music, however, did feature prominently in his work. From his first eugenic writings to his death, Galton made a remarkably consistent argument: that the existence of prominent musical families and child prodigies made the inheritance of musical ability obvious; and that, if musical talent could be inherited, so too could other, more essential, human traits.

This paper offers new readings of Galton’s published work, in conjunction with archival documents and correspondence, to show music’s privileged place as proof of hereditary superiority, and to suggest the influence of this argument on later thinkers in music studies and eugenics. I present three texts as exemplary of Galton’s intellectual development: 1869’s Hereditary Genius, his first book concerning inheritance; 1883’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, which contains his coining of the word “eugenics,” and 1910’s The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere, an unpublished novel in which he laid out his final vision for an ideal eugenic society. All three deploy the idea of hereditary musicianship as a form of proof for broader claims about race and heredity, though they do so in different ways: the first recapitulates romantic tropes of genius, asserting that inherited ability was audible in performance; while the latter texts, conversely, adopt the methods of empirical psychology, using tests of hearing to locate musical faculties within the body and mind. By Kantsaywhere, Galton had effectively synthesized these seemingly contradictory viewpoints into a rhetorical strategy that, I argue, had a profound influence on both the development of the psychology of music, and on the rhetoric of the cultural Right. 

Attention to the development of the trope of hereditary musicality through Galton’s writing suggests that in these formative decades, the science of music and the science of race were tightly interconnected. Untangling these connections, I suggest, offers a version of the history of music studies from which contemporary inheritors of Galton’s eugenic project can be more effectively exposed.

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