Book proposal

This page is dedicated to the book project "What Makes a Great Composer? Insights on Creativity from a Millennium of Data" (tentative title), under contract with Princeton University Press. The proposal will be under consideration for the Carlsberg Foundation Monograph Fellowship 2023. The project has been on Karol's agenda since at least 2012, but without the support of the Carlsberg Foundation, this work will unlikely see the daylight...

What Makes a Great Composer? Insights on Creativity from a Millennium of Data


Why do we still listen to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music but not Antonio Salieri’s?
How did Ludwig van Beethoven’s personal afflictions—deafness, illness, and financial stress—affect his creative output?
Is Nadia Boulanger better known as a teacher than a composer because she was woman?
Why did so many 18th and 19th century composers move to Vienna, Paris, or London, despite unfavorable living conditions in those cities?
What accounts for Aaron Copeland’s acclaim as the “dean of American composers”?

Questions like these have for centuries preoccupied musicians, musicologists, cultural historians, and lovers of western classical music. With rare exception, however, the existing scholarship is piecemeal and focusses its attention on the lives and works of single composers, primarily the most successful ones, from an exclusively qualitative or musical perspective. In this book, we address these classic questions as well as many others by using a “big data” approach that involves assembling and analyzing data on thousands of famous and not-so-famous western classical composers who lived between 1100 and the present day.

We quantify information held within compilations of musical themes, bibliographies, biographies, dictionaries and encyclopedias of musicians and their teachers, the personal correspondence of composers, and a variety of other sources to systematically uncover the myriad factors that influenced composers’ output and creativity, using theories drawn from economics and other social sciences to motivate and interpret our findings. By the end of this book, we hope to provide the most rigorous, data-intensive answer to the age-old question of what makes a great composer.

The book proposal

The full proposal can be accessed here.


Most of the original research underlying the book was undertaken by Karol J. Borowiecki, who is a visionary and leading authority in the economic history of classical composers. An accomplished book author, having published most recently a co-authored textbook The Economics of Arts and Culture with Cambridge University Press, an "anticipatd classic" (see all reviews), and co-edited Cultural Heritage in a Changing World, a hugely successful book with more than 500,000 downloads. Karol is ranked among top-15 economists in Denmark (IDEAS, publications last 10 years) and he is among top-10 cultural economist worldwide (IDEAS). Read Karol's full Bio.

Published in peer-reviewed economics, economic history, and interdisciplinary journals, Karol's work is award-winning and internationally acclaimed. It has been covered by some of the leading news outlets around the world, by podcasts, and via social media. Karol's research has also shaped cultural policy. For example, the UN World Happiness Report 2019 presents Karol’s linguistic inquiry method to study well-being as a solution to “prediction policy problems”.

Some of the findings and analyzes presented in the book, however, are new and have not been published before. Additionally, until now, this body of scholarship has not been assembled in a single place, nor has it been thread together as a coherent, unified story.

The project will benefit from contributions of Marc T. Law (Vermont University), an economic historian who is also a classical music enthusiast with a deep knowledge of music history.

The team will be complemented by a Research Assistant, who will provide help with formatting, indexing, setting up of a project website, and in the dissemination via social media.

As applied economists who happen to be music lovers, we believe that What Makes a Great Composer will become an important resource for economists and economic historians interested in the economics of culture, innovation, and creatvity, as well as historians, musicologists, musicians, and classical music aficionados.


What Makes a Great Composer will consist of 10 chapters.

Chapter 1 sets the stage by posing the question of what makes a great composer and contrasting the approach taken by most scholars, which entails the careful analysis of the life and works of individual composers or other creatives, with our approach, which involves collecting and analyzing “big data” on thousands of composers. The key insight here is that by only focusing on a handful of great composers, existing scholarship cannot identify the factors that drive greatness because it lacks a comparison group and generalizability.
Chapter 2 presents the theoretical framework and introduces data sources.
Chapter 3 presents descriptive data on the lives of over 12,000 composers, as well as approximately 500 “great” composers, who lived between the 12th century and the mid 20th century.
The investigation of the determinants of composer greatness and productivity begins in Chapter 4, where I study the development of composers’ human capital, with specific attention to the role of teachers.
Chapter 5 examines the role of incentives and institutions, and how they shape the quantity and quality of a composer’s work.
Chapter 6 concerns agglomeration economies as a source of composer productivity.
Chapter 7 deals with the link between composers’ emotional states and their productivity.
Chapter 8 explores how composers’ lives and work was affected by tumultuous events like wars and revolutions, or other shocks to artistic productivity.
Chapter 9 turns attention to the much-neglected female composer. I document the representation of women among thousands of composers across time and space, explore how factors like family wealth, having children, or being married or related to another composer, may have differentially affected male and female composers.
Chapter 10 is the concluding chapter.


We are aware that this book is anticipated by the research community and it is under contract with Princeton University Press.

Joel Mokry, book editor at Princeton University Press and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University: "I strongly feel that this is an imaginative, original, and sophisticated project on a fascinating topic. (...) This is first-rate research, and it will be of great interest to a large audience beyond the standard audience of economic history."

Joe Jackson, senior book editor at Princeton University Press: "We really appreciate the unique perspective and application of economics to such a creative area, and the insight this will in turn give back to economics. (...) This will be a fantastic book!"

James Cook, book editor at Oxford University Press: "I am very interested in that. Fascinating topic."

Kathryn Graddy, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Dean at Brandeis University: "Karol Borowiecki is one of the most creative and rigorous cultural economists currently working in the field." (from review)

David Throsby AO, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Macquarie University: "Karol Borowiecki (...) leading researcher and teacher in the field." (from review)

Societal Impact of Project Proposed via Media Coverage (selected)

The research underlying the book proposal has continuously and substantially attracted national and international media coverage, in total by >50 outlets in >10 languages, coverage by various podcasts and via social media. Our estimates are that this research has reached more than 8 million people since 2017.

Well-being and creativity, Sister Doctor Squared Podcast, September 2022

Ukrainsk flygtning i Danmark, Politiken, 8 August 2022

Komponister i krigsramte lande er mere kreative, Kristeligt Dagblad, 9 June 2022

Artisters kreativitet blomstrer under krigsangreb, Dansk Artist Forbund, 16 June 2022

Kreativiteten stiger, når fjenden angriber, DR Radio, 2 June 2022

Sad music can bring us to tears, ABC News, 31 May 2022

Krig og Kultur, Ny Viden, 25 May 2022

Bittersweet, #1 New York Times Bestseller, by Susan Cain, 20 April 2022

Is There an Inherent Connection Between Sadness and Art-Making?, Literary Hub, 7 April 2022

Teachers and Creativity, The Visible Hand Podcast, 31 March 2022

Monet Talks, Perspectives, 1 February 2022

How teachers influence creativity, VoxEU, 29 January 2022

What is the creative influence of teachers?,, 18 January 2022

Welchen kreativen Einfluss haben Lehrer? Einblicke aus der Musikkomposition seit 1450, Ökonomenstimme, 9 July 2021

Economics needs to evolve, The Economist, 26 June 2021

Creativity, Well-being and the Influence of Composers since 1450, The Economic History Podcast, 1 June 2021

Does the analysis of Beethoven's letters prove that creativity arises from misery? (in French), Passéisme, 19 May 2021

Hvilken indflydelse har rollemodeller i de kreative sektorer?, Erhvervplus, 9 February 2021

Beethovens breve sladrer om inspirationen i sorgen, Kristeligt Dagblad, 3 February 2021

8 Insights From A 160 Year Study On Artists, Musicians, Actors And Authors, Forbes, 28 January 2021

Beethoven 250: analysis of the composer’s letters proves that creativity does spring forth from misery, The Conversation, 16 December 2020

Ny forskning: Et rigt kulturliv øger nystartede virksomheders mulighed for at få succe, Kulturmonitor, 28 October 2020

Kunstnere skaber økonomisk vækst, Ny Viden, 20 October 2020

For These Local Artists, Essential Work Was the Foundation of a Creative Life. Now What?, Washington City Paper, 28 May 2020

If we want a vital, creative society, The Washington Post, 4 August 2020

The land of artistic beauty and racial inequality: A study of the US since 1850, VoxEU, 2 July 2020

Is sadness the fuel of creative geniuses? (in Portuguese), Diário de Notícias, 14 January 2020

The Pursuit of Deadly Immortality (in Chinese), Handan Culture Network, 12 January 2020

Why do geniuses come in groups? The mystery of the composer (in Chinese), Yidian Zixun, 7 January 2020

The Anatomy of Sadness (from 34:47), The Pulse, WHYY National Public Radio, 6 September 2019

Art for the 99 Percent, Jacobian, 4 May 2019

Wealth Is a Strong Predictor of Whether an Individual Pursues a Creative Profession, Smithsonian, 2 May 2019

Study Shows Artists Are More Likely to Come From Wealthy Families, Highsnobiety, 1 May 2019

Study: Artists Are More Likely to Come From Rich Families, W, 30 April 2019

Do You Come From a Wealthy Family? You're More Likely to Become an Artist Than Someone From a Poorer Background, Artnet News, 29 April 2019

A Study Says High Family Income Significantly Increases Likelihood of Becoming an Artist, Hyperallergic, 26 April 2019

Poverty as a soul devourer (in Czech), Roklen24, 26 April 2019

Want to Be an Artist? Hope Your Parents Are Loaded, Money, 23 April 2019

Mozart te ensena a seguir siendo creativo en estados bajos de animo, Equipos & Talento, 16 November 2016

Untitled, The Mail on Sunday, 14 August 2016

Ode an die Traurigkeit: Niedergeschlagenheit als Kreativitats-Katalysator bei Mozart und Beethoven?, Klassik, 5 August 2016

The powerful and positve effect of sadness, Myanmar Times, 4 August 2016

Link between negative emotions and artistic brilliance confirmed, Toronto Star, 31 July 2016

Researcher: Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt Were More Creative When They Were Unhappy, Arts Journal, 29 July 2016

For Mozart, Misery Inspired Masterpieces, Pacific Standard Magazine, 29 July 2016

Misery found to feed creativity, NZ Herald, 27 July 2016

Mozart, Beethoven and why happiness can get in the way of creativity, World Economic Forum, 27 July 2016

Study: Being Depressed Can Make You More Creative,, 26 July 2016

Science Says If You Want To Be Creative, Try Being Completely Miserable,, 26 July 2016

The downside of being happy, The Washington Post, 25 July 2016

Little ode to joy in letters from composers' productive years, Boston Globe, 19 June 2016

From Berlin's warehouses to London's estates: How cities shape music scenes, The Guardian, 3 February 2016

There’s no need to suffer for your art, The Times, 24 December 2015

Tod nach Noten (eng. Death after notes), GEO Magazine, July 2015

The persistence of Italian musical and entertainment traditions, Marginal Revolution, 23 May 2015

Stress caused by bitter rivalry led to premature deaths of leading 19th century composers, The Telegraph, 18 April 2015

Streben nach Ruhm ließ Komponisten früher sterben, Kurier, 9 April 2015

Is Peer Pressure Shortening Your Life?, The Pacific Standard Magazine, 6 April 2015

Les compositeurs mouraient plus jeunes en partie a cause du stress, Slate France, 6 April 2015

Byernes musik, Fynske Medier, 22 March 2015

War Can Both Inspire and Inhibit Artistic Creativity, The Pacific Standard Magazine, 4 December 2014

Why it pays to live near creative people - just not too many, The Washington Post, 8 September 2014

Policy Impact of Project Proposed via Public Speaking and Keynotes

Some of the research underlying the book proposed made also a policy impact. This includes substantial coverage of this research in the United Nations World Happiness Report 2019, which argues that creative ways of data generation may “improve well-being predictions, and help solve what economists have called ‘prediction policy problems’”. As an example the report describes the research conducted by Borowiecki (2017).

Finally, the underlying research has been disseminated via various public lectures and keynotes, reaching not only fellow economists, but also policy makers, colleagues from other disciplines, and the wider public. Karol delivered keynote speeches at the Polish Conference of Cultural Economics in Warsaw (scheduled), at the International Conference on Cultural Heritage in Pisa, he spoke at a general public conferences on Cultural and Media Economics, invited by the French Cultural Ministry, on Economic History and Economic Policy, invited by the National Bank of France, and at the interdisciplinary conference "Genius for Sale!", invited by the University of Oxford. He has spoken also on various radio stations and many podcasts.

Karol would also love to talk to you - please reach out to him!