On Musical Intelligence

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Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been attractive to educators, especially those in the arts and humanities who had the most reason to critique a narrow, logical-analytical definition of intelligence. If you’ve spent any time with human beings involved in the act of learning, you know that different people process ideas and develop skills in different ways and find different things come easily or resist learning.

As a musician I would on the face of it be expected to be most interested in his category of musical intelligence. But interestingly, this is actually the least useful category for a music educator.

You see, if the value that Gardner’s theory added to education as a whole was to open up a variety of perspectives on the process of learning and the evaluation of student achievement, then to put one entire discipline into a single box effectively removes it from that multi-dimensional process. ‘You’re studying music? Better work on musical intelligence’ is after all not significantly more helpful than the old-fashioned ‘You’re studying? Better work on your intelligence’ attitude that Gardner’s theory has been used to displace.

And if you look through the list of different intelligences Gardner as identified, it’s hard to find one that you won’t want to engage in learning music:

  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: You don’t get very far in the study of harmony and counterpoint without the capacity for analytical problem-solving, and at a deeper level the capacity to detect patterns underlies all musicianship.
  • Bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence Ever tried playing an instrument without a degree of physical coordination? There’s a reason why musicians are always ready to critique constructions of knowledge that separate mind from body.
  • Spatial intelligence Many musicians use an essentially spatial sense to map their internal conception of music.
  • Interpersonal intelligence Otherwise known as ensemble skills
  • Intrapersonal intelligence The more advanced the level of musicianship, the more it is a musician’s relationship with themselves and their art that determines their success. It underlies not only their capacity to acquire technique but their imaginative relationship with musical meaning and their emotional resilience as a public figure.
  • Linguistic intelligence This may be less central to musicians (although singers would probably disagree), since music has long had a degree of mistrust of the spoken word. But still – however much rehearsing is undertaken using gestures and demonstrations, you still find a significant amount of speech and writing being used to communicate between musicians, and I’m pretty sure it makes a difference how well it is done.

All this leaves me wondering how much is left in a specific ‘musical intelligence’. If this were being expressed in neurological terms rather than psychological, there would probably be some specific areas of the brain that process pitch and rhythm that would deserve the label. So I think the existence of the separate category is probably quite valid; the problem is possibly more in the way it is typically explained in terms of skills that use all of these other intelligences as well.

Indeed, I imagine that any other disciplines that seem to live in a single one of these intelligence definitions would have a similar critique. Somewhere in the blogosphere there is probably a post from a maths teacher arguing that their subject needs high levels of spatial and musical intelligence as well deductive logic.

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