What Is A Child Piano Prodigy?

What Is A Child Piano Prodigy?

Define Child Prodigy:

In psychology research literature, the term child prodigy is defined as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert performer. Child prodigies are rare; and, in some domains, there are no child prodigies at all. Prodigiousness in childhood does not always predict adult eminence.

The term Wunderkind (from German: Wunderkind, literally “wonder child”) is sometimes used as a synonym for “prodigy”, particularly in media accounts. Wunderkind also is used to recognize those who achieve success and acclaim early in their adult careers.

Little Wolfgang Mozart was born to a musical family, but even they were impressed by his young talents. At age 3, he was following along in his older sister’s piano books, and soon surpassed her, even though she was 5 years older.

Mozart was first great piano prodigy
Mozart was already a piano prodigy at age 3!

When he was five, he was already performing in international venues and composing music. At 8, British naturalist (and awesomely-named scholar) Daines Barrington decided to give the young Mozart a test. He took a recently-composed five-part manuscript to him. The boy sat down at the piano and sight-read the piece. As Barrington put it in his diary:

The score was no sooner put upon his desk, than he began to play the symphony in a most masterly manner, as well as in the time and stile which corresponded with the intention of the composer…

Talented and gifted are labels that are casually tossed to children who are bright, but a prodigy – that’s what Mozart seemed to be at the tender age.

And that’s the kind of kid that Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University, has chosen to study.

A Mozart or Doogie Howser doesn’t come around often: “I would say for a true prodigy it’s as rare as 1 in 5 million or 1 in 10 million,” Ruthsatz says.

She has studied and followed more than 30 child prodigies – the largest cohort ever studied — over her academic career. Finding them hasn’t always been an easy task. “I started out as kind of a stalker,” laughs Ruthsatz, “but once people started to work with me, floodgates opened.”

The first prodigy she studied was a 2-year old who appeared on the cover of Peoplemagazine in 1990. He was able to play music he had only heard in church. Ruthsatz tested his IQ and it was in the range of a gifted child, but not extraordinary – what was unusual, though, was the toddler’s working memory.

Prodigies are usually defined as kids who have professional abilities before age 10, and those abilities are most often in the rule-based fields of music, mathematics, art, and chess.

piano prodigies from fisher Piano Studio
Gene and Nathaniel are part of our “Fabulous Five” piano prodigy building program. Here they are at nine years old enjoying winning several first place trophies at the same contest!

Different researchers have proposed theories about the origins of prodigies: Are they the products of intense study, or are they biologically gifted? Ruthsatz cuts a line in the middle, and has a few parameters that she believes creates a child prodigy.

– An exceptional memory. In a study of eight prodigies published earlier this year in the journal Intelligence, each had a working memory ability in the 99th percentile.

-Attention to detail, which aligns with people on the autism spectrum. Although prodigies aren’t on the scale, more than 50 percent of them have a family member on the scale, Ruthsatz’s research shows.

-Elevated general intelligence. Ruthsatz says that the prodigies have a range of IQs from 100 to 147, with a mean of about 128.

Faith at eight years old already commands the piano after just four months of piano lessons. She is another piano prodigy in our “Fabulous Five” prodigy building program. Watch the video below as she shows awesome piano playing!


There’s one more thing that sets prodigies apart from the rest of us: altruism. Ruthsatz says that her subjects tend to be far more altruistic than the general population. In watching her cohort grow up, she says they continue to do well and be well in society: “They’re just benevolent souls.”

Lang Lang and piano prodigyLang Lang has said (a prodigy par excellence and now perhaps the most famous pianist in the world) that by American standards, his father’s brutal methods — which included telling him to commit suicide, refusing any praise, browbeating him into abject submission — would count as child abuse. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang responded. “He could have been less extreme, and we probably would have made it to the same place; you don’t have to sacrifice everything to be a musician. But we had the same goal. So since all the pressure helped me become a world-famous star musician, which I love being, I would say that, for me, it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”



Joanne Ruthsatz; Kimberly Ruthsatz-Stephens; Kyle Ruthsatz. The cognitive bases of exceptional abilities in child prodigies by domain: Similarities and differences. Intelligence. 2014;44(1):11-14.

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