The term child prodigy gets thrown around a lot, especially in the era of YouTube, where it seems like every other day a new musical wunderkind or trivia whiz appears out of nowhere and immediately books an appearance on "Ellen."
But the true definition of a prodigy is a youngster who demonstrates professional abilities before age 10. For reasons not fully understood, prodigies tend to cluster in "rules-based" fields like mathematics, music, chess and art. One expert who studied prodigies estimated that they are as rare as one in five or 10 million. She also noted that they tend to have exceptional memory, attention to detail, and higher rates of altruism than other people [source: Gammon].
Child prodigies usually have average or higher-than-average IQs (100 to 147), and they combine inborn talent with a relentless drive to excel in their chosen field [source: Urist]. It's not uncommon for an art prodigy or music prodigy of just 3 or 4 years old to spend nearly every waking minute at the canvas or the piano. They do it because they love it.
As you'll see from our list, several of history's most famous child prodigies had "stage parents" who both nurtured and heavily promoted their child's talents, while others were wholly self-taught and baffled their parents with their intense interests. Sadly, more than a few fizzled out or full-on imploded under the weight of lofty expectations. Let's start our list with possibly the most famous child prodigy of all.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Perhaps the best-known of all child prodigies, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was wowing royal audiences across Europe when he was only 6 years old, the product of profound musical genius and a doting father with a knack for drumming up publicity.
Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756, Mozart was the seventh child of Leopold Mozart, the province's court composer. But when Leopold became aware of his son's talent — Mozart not only played the piano at age 3, but taught himself the violin at age 4 — Leopold put aside his own career to nurture and promote his wunderkind (and also his musical sister Maria Anna) [source: Mozart.com].
Little Wolfgang's big break was a 1762 audience with the emperor and empress of Vienna, where 6-year-old Mozart mesmerized the crowd with his virtuoso piano playing and original compositions. He wrote his first piano concerto at 4 and several dances for keyboard when he was 6.
Success in Vienna led to more bookings across Europe, and the Mozart family spent the next several years touring, performing and expanding young Mozart's musical repertoire. In England, British naturalist Daines Barrington tested then 8-year-old Mozart by having him sight-read a newly composed orchestra manuscript.
To his astonishment, reported Barrington,
In England, Mozart studied under Johann Christian Bach, son of German composer and Baroque musician Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed his first symphony, plus at least 40 more works, at the age of 9 [source: Mozart.com]. Touring in Italy, he wrote his first operas at 14. As an adult, he composed "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute," among other famous works.
Mozart's life would be full of tragedy and triumph, the story of a rambunctious, perfectionist genius only partially appreciated before his sudden death in 1791 at the age of 35. History now judges him as one of, if not the greatest composer of all time.
Known as "Little Mozart," Alma Deutscher is an accomplished pianist, violinist and classical composer who, like Mozart, started writing and performing her own impressive works while barely old enough to attend kindergarten.
Born in England in 2005, Deutscher started playing the piano when she was just 2 and the violin at 3, and almost immediately began composing original melodies, including an opera about a pirate named Don Alonzo. At 6, she recorded her first piano sonata, at 7, her first complete opera, and at 9, her first concerto for violin and full orchestra, which she herself played with virtuoso skill in front of international audiences. She was just 12 when she wrote her first piano concerto [source: Alma Deutscher].
Although Deutscher, now 13, brushes off comparisons to Mozart, by all accounts she's the real deal. One of her teachers, Robert Gjerdingen, a professor of music at Northwestern University, told "60 Minutes" that Deutscher has unlimited potential as a musician.
"[Music] is her first language," Gjerdingen told "60 Minutes". "She speaks the Mozart style. She speaks the style of Mendelssohn, as if she were a native speaker. She's batting in the big leagues. And if you win the pennant, there's immortality."
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century colonial Mexican nun and accomplished poet, essayist and outspoken feminist. As a teenager, she first gained fame as a self-taught prodigy when she faced a 40-person panel of Mexico City's foremost scholars and aced an oral exam in mathematics, philosophy, theology and literature.
Born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje, circa 1651, de la Cruz was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain and a creole woman raised from a young age at the hacienda of her maternal grandfather. It was there that she learned to read at age 3 and began devouring the books in her grandfather's library, writing her first poems in Spanish, Latin and the Aztec language Nahuatl when she was just 8 [source: Engel].
The girl was sent to live with an aunt in Mexico City, where she begged to be disguised as a boy and sent to school, but instead had to settle for tutoring from a scholarly priest. She soon won the favor of the viceroy of New Spain and his wife, who organized a public test of her expansive knowledge in the royal court. The 17-year-old girl matched the greatest minds in the court and the feat was publicized throughout Mexico.
Uninterested in marriage, de la Cruz joined a convent so she could dedicate her life to studying and writing. Her poems and plays, including witty secular comedies, are considered classics of baroque Spanish literature. When she was reprimanded by the church for an essay criticizing a prominent bishop's sermon, she wrote her infamous "Respuesta" (or "Reply"), quite possibly the first feminist manifesto.
Defending the rights of women to study and express themselves freely, she quipped, "One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper" [source: Merrim].
When Bobby Fischer was 6, his older sister Joan bought him his first chess set and showed him how each piece moved across the board. By the time Fischer was 12, he was practically living at New York City's preeminent chess clubs and holding his own with America's best players.
At age 14, Fischer outplayed 200 of the country's top-ranked players to win the U.S. Open Chess Championship in 1957 [source: Taper]. At 15, he became the youngest player at the time to receive the title of grandmaster, a feat achieved by beating other top chess professionals in international competitions [source: Friedel].
But the match that cemented Fischer as America's first — and arguably its only — bona fide chess superstar was his much-hyped trouncing of the Soviet chess master Boris Spassky in 1972 to become the reigning world chess champion. No American has claimed the title since.
Sadly, Fischer's preternatural genius at chess came at a cost to his personal life. With a reported IQ of 181, Fischer was bored and restless in school, dropping out of high school at 16. As a teen, he obsessed over chess every waking hour, pouring through the archives at New York City's Marshall Chess Club to replay thousands of old games and develop new strategies [source: Weber].
By the time he faced Spassky in 1972, the 30-year-old Fischer had grown paranoid, accusing opponents of trying to poison him. He joined the fringe Worldwide Church of God in his early 20s and was drawn to conspiracy theories about a global Jewish cabal. Later in life, he would disappear for years at a time and occasionally show up at international tournaments.
Fischer died in exile in Iceland at 64 years old, a fugitive from American officials for playing an unsanctioned chess tournament in Yugoslavia against Spassky for $5 million in 1992. (Fischer won.) His legacy stands as America's greatest chess champion and tragic reminder of the price of genius.
Known as the "human computer," Shakuntala Devi performed astounding feats of mental calculations — including solving problems faster than the fastest early computers — starting when she was just a little girl in India.
Devi was born in Bangalore in 1929, the daughter of a trapeze artist, lion tamer and magician. Playing cards with her father at 3 years old, Devi showed an incredible facility for memorizing numbers, including entire decks of cards. Her father, a savvy showman, introduced young Devi to mathematics and began grooming her for the stage [source: Pandya].
Devi fell for numbers the way that other toddlers love toys and crayons. By the time she was 6, she was performing regularly as part of her father's magic show, doing card tricks and calculations. And before long, the crowds came just to see Devi, with her father taking on a new role as her manager. She toured all over India and the world while growing up.
Her specialty was cube roots, which she could find for numbers in the trillions in a matter of seconds. Another favorite trick was identifying the day of the week for any date in history. But one of her most memorable feats was in 1977, when she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds, beating a Univac computer (an early computer) by 12 seconds [source: Jensen].
In 1980, her fame was immortalized when she made the Guinness World Records for the fastest multiplication of two 13-digit numbers. She did it in 28 seconds, including the time required to write out the 26-digit solution. Far from her machine-like nickname, Devi was an outgoing and warm person. She died in 2013 at the age of 83 [source: Pandya].
Born six weeks premature in 1950 and named Stevland Hardaway Judkins, Stevie Wonder was blinded as an infant when he was given too much oxygen in his hospital incubator, which caused his retinas to detach. But like his boyhood idol, Ray Charles, Wonder would overcome his disability to achieve early and enduring success as a hit-making, genre-bending musician.
When Wonder was 4, his family moved from Sagniaw, Michigan to Detroit, where young Wonder enjoyed singing in the church choir and banging out rhythms on his mom's pots and pans. A family friend gave Wonder a harmonica, which he played day and night; then a neighbor let him play around on their piano. Soon he wore out his welcome, knocking on the neighbor's door every day [source: Biography].
When he was 9 or 10, self-taught Wonder would put on shows for the neighborhood kids. One of his classmates was the son of Ronnie White, member of the Motown band The Miracles. When White heard Wonder, he knew he had to take him down to Motown Records to audition for founder Berry Gordy.
Watching Wonder switch from instrument to instrument, playing with untrained enthusiasm and style, Gordy signed him to a record deal on the spot and renamed him Little Stevie Wonder. At just 11, Wonder released his first album with Motown, and at 12 he recorded "Fingertips (Part 2)," his first No. 1 single on both Billboard's pop and R&B charts. He remains the youngest solo artist to top the pop charts.
Wonder has had one of the longest and most-lauded careers in pop music, with more than 30 top 10 hits and 25 Grammy Awards [source: Grammy]. And he was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 at just 38 years old [source: Britannica].
John Stuart Mill
Born in London in 1806, John Stuart Mill was exposed to an intensive experiment in early childhood education that might have broken weaker minds, but instead laid the foundation for one of the foremost economic, philosophical and political thinkers of the Victorian Age.
Mill's father, James Mill, was a Scottish writer and an ardent follower of Jeremy Bentham, the infamous utilitarian philosopher and former child prodigy [source: Mastin]. With Bentham's help, James Mill embarked on an ambitious (some say abusive) course of education for his bright young boy, cramming his mind with Latin, Greek, physics, economics and ancient history. There were no holiday breaks, as the father feared these would lead to laziness of mind [source: Etinson].
John thrived, reading Plato in the original Greek and writing a history of Rome by age 6 [source: Gopnik]. By 12, he was schooled enough in the classics, math and science that he could have sat for the entrance examinations to Oxford. And by the ripe old age of 18, he was arguably the greatest economist in the world at the time, having read just about everything on the subject [source: Garcia].
At 20, however, John suffered a nervous breakdown, but eventually recovered after supplanting the purely mechanistic training of Bentham with a love of poetry, literature and music [source: Garcia]. John was a prolific writer, penning both landmark books — "Principles of Political Economy" and "On Liberty"are his best-known — and hundreds of magazine articles. His legacy is as a passionate believer of the equal rights of both sexes and all races, and a fierce defender of individual liberty.
The Australian artist Aelita Andre, just 9 years old in 2018, is a somewhat controversial child prodigy. According to her parents, Andre began painting at 9 months. Her first works consisted of colorful acrylic smears on red and black canvases with names like "The Cloud Man" and "Lizard at Sunset." At 22 months, her first painting was hung in a London gallery.
Andre's style is described as "magical abstraction" and has drawn comparisons to drip-and-splotch masters like Jackson Pollock. In addition to that first London exhibit, Andre has staged solo shows in her native Australia, New York City, Italy, Paris, Hong Kong and Russia, where her paintings have sold for a reported $24,000 or more [source: Horowitz]. (Did we mention she's just 9?)
But from the moment Andre first started making headlines as a pint-size Picasso, she's had her critics. Some accuse her parents — both professional artists — of unduly influencing, if not outright creating her art. And then there's criticism of the art itself, abstract splashes of paint that invite plenty of "my kid could do that" scoffing.
But watching videos of the Andre at work, it's clear that she's very much the young mind behind the masterpieces, playful but serious as she squirts squeeze bottles of paint across oversized canvases positioned on the floor. And her work has matured over time, evolving from seemingly random finger-paintings to fully composed multimedia installations.
Like other artist prodigies — Picasso among them — the final word on her childhood genius will likely depend on her success as an adult.
John von Neumann
Not all little geniuses turn out to be accomplished adults, but John von Neumann is a shining example of a mathematics prodigy who went on to make major contributions to both computers and atomic weaponry.
Born in Hungary in 1903, von Neumann stood out at a young age for his insane memory and voracious appetite for learning. The story goes that by age 6, he would amuse his parents' friends and neighbors by memorizing complete pages from the phone book and dividing eight-digit numbers in his head. He also liked to tell jokes in classical Greek [source: Britannica].
Eager to escape the mounting antisemitism of 1930s Europe, von Neumann took a position at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, where some dude named Albert Einstein was also a professor. In 1943, von Neumann was recruited for the Manhattan Project, where he designed some of the most important elements of the first atomic bombs and even helped choose Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the first targets [source: Atomic Heritage Foundation].
But von Neumann wasn't done yet. In 1945, he achieved a major breakthrough in early computing by describing something called the "stored program technique," essentially solving the problem of having to build new hardware for every application [source: Center for Computing History]. He was also instrumental in building the first electronic general purpose computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lastly, von Neumann is also considered the father of game theory, a mathematical approach to economics that went on to influence the study of a range of fields, including evolutionary biology. We told you this guy was a big deal.
Joey Alexander is an unlikely jazz piano star. First, he's from Indonesia, not exactly the capital of the jazz universe (or even on the map). Second, he's entirely self-taught (unless YouTube counts as a teacher). And third, he won't be 15 until June 2018.
Alexander's full name is Josiah Alexander Sila and he grew up in Bali, where his only exposure to jazz was a handful of CDs that his dad brought home from his time as a college student in the United States. Alexander got his first keyboard when he was 6 and started picking out a Thelonious Monk tune by ear. His dad taught him some fundamentals, but the passion and dedication to jazz piano has been all Joey.
His family moved to Jakarta when Alexander was 8, by which time he was a big enough deal in Indonesian jazz circles to play for a visiting Herbie Hancock. At 9, he entered the Master-Jam Fest, an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine, and took home the grand prize [source: Chinen].
But Alexander's big break came when famed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who's also the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, caught some of Alexander's YouTube videos and invited the then 8-year-old ingenue to play at the 2014 Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala. When Alexander took the piano bench (feet dangling half a foot off the stage) few in the audience expected what came next, a masterful and soulful solo rendition of Monk's "Around Midnight." He got a standing ovation.
Alexander now lives in New York and released his first album, "My Favorite Things," in 2015 at the age of 12.
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Author's Note: 10 Child Prodigies
Like many other parents, I worry about child prodigies. I worry that the fire that drives them to achieve so much so young will one day burn them. That they will peak early, fail to distinguish themselves as adult artists and be left with nothing to show for a childhood lost to practicing, painting and playing chess. I was touched by the story of Saul Chandler, a hard-drinking and solitary boat captain from New York who used to be Saul Lipshutz, a violin prodigy who played Carnegie Hall before he was 11, but had a nervous breakdown in his teens. But I was heartened to read about startling talents like Emily Bear, now 17, whose parents told NPR in 2012 that they were sticking to a "60-year plan" for Emily's happiness, not a two-year plan.
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- Weber, Bruce. "Bobby Fischer, Chess Master, Dies at 64." The New York Times. Jan, 18, 2008 (April 1, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/18/obituaries/18cnd-fischer.html