Usually when we describe a musician is a genius, we mean that their musical skills are beyond compare. Some musicians, however, are geniuses in the more traditional sense: holders of advanced degrees, members of MENSA, people with remarkable skill sets and qualifications.
Take the following music stars, all of whom are way smarter than you might have realised.
20. Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Prophets of Rage)
There are some bands you don’t expect to harbour genius, but there are some cases where it kind of makes sense. Rage Against the Machine are one of the most famously politically engaged musical acts out there, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that their lead singer is politically plugged in.
Morello has a Master’s degree in political science from Harvard University, which is kind of as legitimate as you can get. He uses his degree to protest censorship and fascism wherever he finds it, in between touring and writing of course.
Out of all of the pop stars that you would expect to be secretly a genius, Ke$ha probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. However, despite her being famous mostly for vapid songs about alcohol and partying, she’s actually one of the most intelligent people in the pop world.
As well as getting a near-perfect score on her SATs, she was offered full scholarships to a bunch of super prestigious colleges, including Barnard College. She was all set for an incredible academic career, but decided to drop out and become a pop star instead.
18. Brian May (Queen)
Brian May is mostly known for being the lovable grandad of iconic rock band Queen and, second to that, he’s famous for his incredible mane of bright white hair. With that said, what most people don’t know about him is that a career in rock and roll was only his second ambition, after becoming an astrophysicist.
May graduated with honours from London’s Imperial College, with a degree in physics and mathematics. After Queen’s success, he used his fame to publish a book all about the scientific history of the universe, as well as going back to school to complete his PhD in Astrophysics. As for the title, it was called ‘A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud’ – pretty rock and roll, right?
17. Tom Scholz (Boston)
Most people become stars when they’re young, which means whatever point in education they are at, their school or college tends to take a backseat. With that said, Tom Scholz had already completed a Master’s degree by the time he founded his band Boston, which helped him out in more ways than he expected.
Because his MA was in mathematical engineering, he had the skills to found his own music technology company, and even design and build his own amps from scratch. The amp he designed is still sold by Dunlop today, and each one still comes with his signature designed into it.
16. Simon & Garfunkel (both of them)
Like bread and butter or chocolate and strawberries, Simon and Garfunkel are two musicians who obviously belong together. They’ve been an iconic duo for decades (even after their acrimonious 1970 breakup) but both their lives nearly looked very different, mostly because of how smart they were.
The two started writing and performing together when they were only aged 11, and continued to right into their teens. College made them split up though, with one getting a degree in art history and a Master’s in mathematics before returning to music, and the other getting an English degree and attending law school.
Though there are a lot of candidates, there’s a pretty good chance that Shakira is the most intelligent pop star out there. For starters, she has a reported IQ of 140, and that’s reflected in the number of languages she knows how to speak.
She is fluent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, but that’s not all. She can also speak French, Italian, Catalan, and Arabic, and used those skills to get a degree in the history of western civilisation at UCLA.
14. Dexter Holland (The Offspring)
A lot of bands deal with philosophical themes and highbrow topics in their music, but The Offspring aren’t exactly one of those groups. Their music mostly talks about things like high school, skateboarding and girls – which is surprising when you realise how intelligent the lead singer is.
The co-founder and frontman actually graduated high school as valedictorian, and went on to study both an undergraduate degree in biology and a Master’s in molecular biology. He was even planning on studying a doctorate before his band took off, which he recently completed as well as becoming a licensed aircraft pilot.
13. Greg Graffin (Bad Religion)
Being the frontman of a rock band is a pretty demanding job, which is why most rockstars don’t tend to have a whole other career on the side. That’s not always true though, as Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin doesn’t just have one other side hustle, but several.
He’s written three in-depth academic texts, scripted the pilot for a TV show, and even teaches at university in between touring. All this revolves around his PhD in zoology that was achieved after an undergraduate and Master’s in geology, which he studied for after forming his band at the age of 15.
It’s so common for musicians to be eccentric or weird that it’s basically a cliche at this point, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Madonna was regarded as the weird kid at her school. However, what might surprise you is how smart she was.
She was top of her class all the way through high school, with a grade point average that was miles above that of her classmates. She also has an IQ of 140, which explains the determination she had to become a successful and industry-revolutionising star.
11. Annie Lennox (Eurythmics, solo)
Most of the artists on this list are geniuses because outside of their careers in music, they’re also experts in another equally difficult field. Annie Lennox is different because her genius manifests in her musical ability, which qualifies her for genius status all by itself.
Lennox was accepted into the Royal College of Music, the most prestigious musical institution in the world, and studied there to perfect her flute, piano and harpsichord for three years. She graduated with one of the most thorough music educations you can get, before going on to become half of the hit music duo Eurythmics.
10. Sterling Morrison (The Velvet Underground)
New York art-rock pioneers The Velvet Underground are best remembered for featuring singer-songwriter Lou Reed and experimental noisesmith John Cale. However, let’s not forget about the group’s guitarist Sterling Morrison.
After pursuing his undergraduate degree whilst still performing with The Velvet Underground, Morrison would go on to enjoy an illustrious academic career after the group split. He earned a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. Sadly, just nine years later Morrison passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
9. John Legend
One of the most esteemed R&B/soul singer-songwriters of the 21st century, John Legend was born John Roger Stephens, and pursued music from an early age. Initially homeschooled, such was Legend’s intelligence on entering school he was moved ahead two grades.
When it came time for college, Legend was offered scholarships to attend such prestigious universities as Harvard and Georgetown, but chose instead to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated magna cum laude with a BA Hons in English and African-American Literature.
8. Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)
Although British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden had been rocking since the mid-70s, they didn’t really take off until Bruce Dickinson joined on lead vocals in 1981. With Dickinson on frontman duties, the band became one of the most popular metal acts of all time.
Screeching vocals are just one feather in Dickinson’s cap. Intelligent Life magazine once declared Dickinson a living example of a polymath thanks to his varied skills: he’s a licenced commercial airline pilot, a beer brewer, author and screenwriter, and has competed internationally in fencing.
7. Gloria Estefan
After rising to fame as the voice of Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan came to be known as the queen of Latin pop music. Believe it or not, at one point the Cuban singer could have taken a very different career path – as a spy.
As she is fluent in multiple languages including Spanish, French and English, Estefan once worked as a translator at Miami Airport. Whilst in this job, Estefan was approached by the CIA who hoped to recruit her. She decided against it.
6. Chino XL
You might know of New Jersey’s Chino XL (born Derek Emmanuel Barbosa) for his rapping, with four studio albums to his name since 1996. You may also know his work as an actor and pro-wrestler. You might not have realised, however, that he’s also a certified genius.
Chino XL is a member of the exclusive society MENSA, membership of which requires an IQ higher than 130. The rapper says of his MENSA status, “I’ll just say that it’s an honour. Anything that highlights being intelligent instead of the opposite is good because… we have to start noticing the children and promoting education to children.”
5. Philip Taylor Kramer (Iron Butterfly)
Philip Taylor Kramer joined Iron Butterfly on bass in 1974. Although the psychedelic rock band were past their peak by that time, Kramer went on some remarkable achievements after leaving the band, starting with a degree in Aerospace Engineering.
Kramer was involved in numerous hi-tech projects including missile guidance systems, computer facial recognition programs and research into faster-than-light communications. Sadly he met a troubled end, dying under mysterious circumstances in 1995 in what was likely a suicide.
4. ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
Can you think of any other musician who has achieved global, decades-spanning fame and acclaim, including record sales of 12 million records and five Grammy Award wins, other than ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic? He’s a performer who might casually be classed as a comedy/creative genius.
Yankovic’s smarts go beyond that, however. So great was his academic prowess that he started kindergarten a year early, skipped the second grade and ultimately wound up graduating high school aged just 16, and as valedictorian at that. Pretty clever for someone who made a career of acting stupid!
3. Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan)
Versatile guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter rose to prominence as a member of Steely Dan before moving on to join The Doobie Brothers, so he’s no stranger to fans of 70s rock. It may come as a surprise that Baxter has also worked extensively as a military consultant.
Without any formal training, Baxter started learning about missile systems in the 80s and eventually became an expert in the field. He has since been hired as a consultant by the Pentagon, NASA and many more.
2. GZA (Wu-Tang Clan)
New York’s Wu-Tang Clan are famous for showcasing some of the greatest rappers around, but you might not have known that one of the group’s founder members, GZA (born Gary Grice), is a very intelligent man indeed. (Not for nothing has he released solo records as The Genius.)
A student of astrophysics, GZA has given TED talks, lectured at Harvard University and launched an initiative to encourage people to pursue a scientific education. He has explored this subject matter at length in his music, including his upcoming long-in-development album Dark Matter.
1. Milo Aukerman (The Descendents)
Formed in Manhattan Beach, California in 1977, The Descendents rose to prominence in the hardcore punk scene of the early 80s and have stayed in the game for most of the years since. However, frontman Milo Aukerman has not devoted his entire life to singing punk rock.
In off-periods in music, Aukerman studied hard, earning a PhD in Biochemistry and going on to conduct research in molecular biology, which eventually led to him teaching part-time at the University of Delaware. However, Aukerman ultimately put this behind him to focus on music.