What is the reason behind Ilayaraja's genius?
I was listening to this podcast on a new book by David Epstein arguing for more generalists. For a few minutes, he talks about research on learning and what works. My antenna got tuned up because it is my area of interest. All the research about learning agrees on a few things that work well. It is "spaced repetition" and "interleaving". Also, if you want to learn a topic better, first take a test or a quiz about it. After that, if you read or learn, you will be primed, and you can absorb and retain it well.
I have written about a Tamil music director, Ilayaraja. He is a genius. His body of work is incomparable to any musician in the West. He has composed music for more than 1000 movies. Indian movies have at least five songs and 2 hours long background score. Every film is like an album of various genre of songs. Ilayaraja has produced consistently great work at high speed. I have always been curious about how he got started and what was his edge over others.
I got some glimpse of it by connecting the podcast of David Epstein to Raja duringthis new interview. Raja was mentored by Master Dhanraj. Raja is interested in music from his childhood days. He is surrounded by his siblings and other people involved in music. (This is an excellent setting for exploring the scenius, but I will reserve that for a post later).
Raja knows to play the harmonium but he may not have formal training in music. He doesn't know how to take notes or how to mark the chords. But Dhanraj Master puts him in a situation to do that. He also gives feedback to Raja. The same happens with another knowledgeable mentor of Raja, GK Venkatesh. Venkatesh pushes Raja to play the guitar, who earlier had only basic knowledge about harmonium.
This is precisely what David Epstein calls a kind learning environment.
A kind learning environment is where the next steps are clear. All the information is available, the goal is right in front of you. Every time you do something, feedback is immediate and perfectly accurate. And so if you just do it and are cognitively engaged, you get better.
Raja is lucky to be mentored by Dhanraj Master and GK Venkatesh. He gets challenged positively by his mentors. He, of course, gets feedback on what works or not in a visible manner. That feedback loop definitely works wonders in the later stages.
Raja knows music from his childhood days. He is part of a group of people interested in music. He learns it formally. He gets a chance to be better in his craft by shipping consistently. Shipping consistently here is composing for various films day-in and day-out. This is probably fertile ground for spacing, repetition and interleaving.
Spacing & Repetition - Raja was busiest at his peak. He gets to try various genre of music for various different situations. He had constant shipping of content, with a closed feedback loop. The feedback is reception, applause or criticism of the audience. It either works or doesn't.
Interleaving - This is probably my assumption which may or may not be accurate. Interleaving is a process where people mix, or interleave, multiple subjects or topics while they study in order to improve their learning. By the nature of film music and Raja's interest in various other kinds of music and arts, he is immensely benefitted out of this.
Yes, there is a bit of luck, a lot of hard work, his exposure to a diverse set of people and his sheer talent that worked to make the genius of Raja. I have no doubt about that. But the formative years had a big influence because of the right learning technique and environment he was bestowed upon.