National Geographic’s cable network is celebrating a musical genius this week with the 8-part limited series Genius: Aretha and the excitement doesn’t start there. Subscribers of National Geographic magazine can learn more about Aretha Franklin’s brilliance through several articles and this week’s episode of the Overheard at National Geographic podcast ties in as well, titled “The Secret of Musical Genius.” In it, host Peter Gwin explores the definition of genius and draws parallels between Mozart and Franklin.

Photo Source: Variety

Photo Source: Variety

Emeritus psychology professor at UC Davis, Dean Keith Simonton, is one of the special guests for this episode, who shared the origins of the word “Genius.” In ancient Rome, the term wasn’t selective, attributed to everyone like a guardian angel that fosters your unique qualities. Over time, the term became used more stringently to define those with special achievements. It became exclusive to the likes of Michelangelo, William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a musical child prodigy, the first to be scientifically studied for his rare talent. One of the qualities that set him apart from his contemporaries like Beethoven was his ability to write music for every major genre of his time, setting him apart and showcasing levels of genius unmatched in music.

A combination of nature and nurture, Dean Keith Simonton has found several commonalities among the lives of child prodigies who became geniuses in their craft. The child prodigy has to have a family that recognizes and cultivates their child’s talent, which Mozart’s composer father did, sacrificing his own career to nurture his son’s. There’s also the need to be in the right place at the right time, with Mozart being moved to Vienna, the center of the music world at the time. A third factor was also the political climate, Mozart living through a revolution that inspired many of his compositions. And lastly, they need to be given the opportunity to show their talent, with Maria Anna Mozart, his sister, having similar musical abilities as her brother and even composing music that has been lost to time, forced to stop when she became of marrying age.

Using all of Dean Keith Simonton’s metrics for tracking the rise of a genius, Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, draws similar parallels in Aretha Franklin’s story. Her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, recognized her talent and helped nurture it, putting her talents on display in his gospel sermons. Being at the right place at the right time is another factor and Aretha Franklin grew up a few doors away from Smokey Robinson, who was amazed by her talent. It needs to be the right time for a genius to emerge and with an explosion of Black culture taking over the radio through Motown music as the Civil Rights Movement ramped up, there was no better time for an artist like Aretha Franklin to emerge and become the Queen of Soul.

The podcast also talks about a bonus trait of geniuses, experiencing a childhood trauma. In the case of Aretha Franklin, it was the loss of her mother when she was just 10 years old. National Geographic writer DeNeen L. Brown talks about how that sadness and grief came out through her voice, giving her even more profound ways to add emotion to her songs.

Further examples of Aretha Franklin’s musical genius are showcased, transitioning genres and producing music inspired by the politics of her time similar to Mozart's ability to cross genres. And late in her career, at the 1998 Grammy Awards, opera star Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” but fell ill. Aretha Franklin was asked to step in for him at the last minute, having no experience with the genre, and commanded a standing ovation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k33sINjn9o0

Other guests on this week’s episode include Charles Limb, n otolaryngologist at UC San Francisco who talks about how the brains of creative geniuses work, and a young musical prodigy rising up today, Keedron Bryant, who could grow up to be the next musical genius. He’s already won awards and performed on national television, catching the attention of Jay-Z and Beyonce, and is working with producer Dem Jointz who’s worked with Eminem, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Kanye West, and Christina Aguilera.

Don’t miss Genius: Aretha, airing on National Geographic and streaming on Hulu. You can listen to this full episode and others at the official Overheard at National Geographic website.