Nobel Prize Winner Credits Music Education for Success

Thomas Südhof, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, said he owed his success to his bassoon teacher. Being a bassoonist, he said, “was a lot harder than being a scientist.”

Südhof spoke recently with Ryan Romine of The Double Reed about his experiences and thoughts on music education. Asked to expand on his comments about his musical training and how it made an impact on his research skills, Südhof replied,

“… As a musician, you practice for thousands of hours to play for a few minutes—but when you play, you have to not only recapitulate the learned material, you have to expand on it and you have to communicate it to the audience. In science, it is basically the same thing—it is in the end a process which also depends on communicating with an audience and accepting and responding to its feedback. Finally, I learned to value traditions as a musician, but at the same time the importance of trying to transcend tradition. The tradition is the basis that allows you to progress, the starting point, but it cannot become a limitation, because then both in music and in science creativity and progress end.”

Regarding classical music, Südhof delivered this strong indictment:

“… in the US at the present time, classical music is fundamentally a dying art. There are few people who are willing to pay for it and its importance is miniscule compared to that of popular sports. Musicians earn a fraction of what even a mediocre athlete earns. There is no vibrant musical culture at present—everything is geared towards being commercially successful, not towards content. However, I think the same trend is observed in Europe, and we need to accept this trend and look for components in popular culture that are not boring (sometimes quite hard for me).”

Asked whether he believed STEM and arts education could be integrated, Südhof responded,

“I personally think that training in the arts prepares a growing child just as well for a scientific or technical career as [does] training in STEM subjects, if not better, because the arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile for future learning.”

What are your thoughts on these three issues Südhof addresses: the benefits of music education; the state of classical music; and the STEM to STEAM movement? Please share your thoughts below.

Learn more about STEM to STEAM.

Getting STEAMed about Education

Catherina Hurlburt, Special Assistant, January 24, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (