The concept of “talent” pervades American musical discourses. Although talent is recognized as a desirable attribute, its meaning is not fixed; as a signifier, it floats. In this dissertation, I contend that the privilege to determine what musical talent means—and who gets to be called talented—is an opportunity that reflects and grants social power, rendering the concept a highly consequential site of struggle. Across the dissertation’s four chapters, I analyze discourses from the last two centuries and bring previously disconnected musicological, educational, critical, and scientific literature into conversation. In the first chapter, “Defining Talent,” I disentangle the separate and often contradictory meanings the concept has accrued through a typology that parses its five core meanings: as a gift, as inheritance, as potentiality, as passion, and as speed. The remainder of the dissertation presents three case studies, using their triangulation to understand a broader American discursive terrain. In “Explaining Talent,” I examine receptions of the late nineteenth-century African American pianist Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, whose performances exposed contradictions at the heart of racialized constructions of musicality during this era. In “Representing Talent,” I argue that the producers and judges of twenty-first century talent competition programs broadcast meanings of talent that foreground and manipulate affective responses while reinforcing myths of meritocracy. Finally, in “Teaching Talent,” I draw upon historical research and ethnographic fieldwork with two pedagogical communities (informed by the Suzuki and O’Connor methods, respectively) to demonstrate how differing beliefs about natural ability influence students’ access to social and cultural capital. Overall, the dissertation encourages scholars and educators to approach “musical talent” as a construction that is as heterogeneous and contingent as the concept of “music” itself.




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