• Teachers, leaders and mentors provide lasting influence in a number of ways.
  • This influential role is highlighted in creative professions, particularly composers, where creative ideas are transmitted from teacher to student.
  • Research indicates that students who learn from high-quality music teachers are themselves more likely to become higher-quality composers.

Teachers can exert lasting influence over their students’ output, but measuring that influence is challenging. This column evaluates the impact of instructors in the context of Western music composition over five centuries. The author finds that students are more similar to their teachers than to other contemporaneous composers and that this influence persists throughout the next two to three generations, as many students go on to become teachers themselves, but subsequently starts to fade. Students of high-quality teachers are more likely to become higher-quality composers, while imitation of a low-quality teacher reduces the chances of success later in life.

Ideas are fundamental to the production of any creative output, whether in the arts, sciences, or in business. However, because ideas are so elusive, little is known about how they are transmitted between people. Teachers, mentors, and role models provide influence in many ways (Rivkin et al. 2005, Rocko 2004, Chetty et al. 2014, Waldinger 2010). However, in creative professions it is possibly their creative or intellectual influence that matters most: how teachers shape a student’s skills and views of the craft, and in turn the nature of the work they go on to produce. Teachers or professional leaders with wide reach can even affect the direction in which entire fields move.

Academic researchers may recognise the potential for this influence, reflecting on how they themselves may have been shaped by where they did graduate work and the faculty who taught their courses or advised them.

On the one hand, instruction by subject matter experts is essential for transmitting basic principles and skills and for the ability to discern good from low-quality work. But it may also imbue students with tastes and methods of a teacher who is out of the mainstream or who does not meet contemporary standards. At the extreme, this influence may even cause bad ideas to propagate. Whether or not teachers and role models in creative fields leave an imprint on their students that shapes their future work is an empirical question.

In a new paper (Borowiecki 2022), I study this question in the context of Western music composition over five centuries. Examining a historically important cultural institution in a setting where composers’ musical lineage is well-documented allows the content of their work to be directly compared and its lasting value measured. I develop a novel approach to provide unique insights on how teachers influence the creative work of their students, how long this influence lasts, and what the consequences are for the students’ inventive output.

This shows a map of composers by birth location in Europe
A map of composers in Europe, based on where they are born.
Image: Borowiecki 2022

Using unique data capturing key attributes of a creative output for around 15,000 music compositions by hundreds of composers, I calculate similarity measures between pairs of composers (or across compositions) and confirm that students are more similar to their teachers than to other, unconnected, contemporaneous composers.

The influence is shown to persist throughout the next two to three generations in a composer’s musical lineage, as many students went on to become composition teachers themselves, but the effect subsequently starts to fade. I also confirm the results by comparing unconnected students who had a teacher in common – these students are more similar to each other than to other contemporaneous composers.

I then explore the consequences of the observed influence in an attempt to determine whether influence is a good thing. Does it cause only good ideas to persist, or bad ones too? My findings indicate that students who imitated to a greater degree a high-quality teacher were themselves more likely to become higher-quality composers. On the other hand, increased imitation of a low-quality teacher reduced students’ chances of success later in life. This underscores the importance of choosing the right role model.

It becomes clear that the ideas in circulation are not always good; indeed, some transmitted ideas and practices may be detrimental to the success of a young individual. This poses an additional challenge to the student, who may need to carefully filter out and identify best practices for herself. These observations carry particular weight considering the potentially long-term nature of influence experienced early in a person’s life or career.

The results have implications for our understanding of the production of creative or intellectual output, specifically around questions of where ideas come from; why certain ideas get produced as opposed to others, and by whom; and what the consequences might be. These questions are of general interest and also have significant market implications.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to measure the value in media?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has changed the way content is produced, distributed and consumed for media companies, brands and individuals.

The media industry today is characterized by so-called "destination" and "ecosystem" media. The former are content destinations for consumers, while the latter use content as a strategic asset in a bigger portfolio of products and services. They offer relatively low-price media services as drivers to monetize other parts of their business, such as e-commerce, transactions, live experiences, affiliate sales or branded media.

Media production and distribution creates economic value along its sectoral production chains. It also does so through these ecosystems, increasingly owned and managed by "supercompetitors". How should society measure and value their impact?

This project, Value in Media, has spent a year looking at how individual consumers value destination media. It has analyzed business model strategies in the media industry, studied the extent to which these strategies align with people's preferences around payment and data management, and discussed areas for the industry to focus on in improving its value proposition to society.

Building on this research, the project is now in a second phase that attempts to measure the value that ecosystem media generate in society. It will look specifically at:

  • A cost-benefit analysis of ecosystem economics in media
  • Developing a framework for new indicators of value such as quality, innovation and consumer welfare
  • Identifying metrics that better represent the value of media to society, including its contribution to related activities such as retail, e-commerce and consumer industries