The Musical Intelligence

Introduction: What is intelligence? (Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind, 1983)

The theory of multiple intelligences developed by Howard Gardner has significantly influenced education in the last few decades.  Gardner refers to the intelligences as ways of knowing and understanding yourself and the world around you.  In the introductory section of Frames of Mind, his first popular book on the subject, Gardner defines intelligence as "the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings" (1983).  He explains that he was seeking to undermine the common notion of intelligences as a general capacity or potential which every human being possessed to a greater or lesser extent.  He questioned the assumption that you could measure intelligence with standardized verbal instruments, such as the short answer, paper and pencil IQ test.  He asks his readers to "perform two thought experiments."  

In Gardner's early research he discussed seven intelligences.  Gardner later introduced an eighth intelligence: the naturalist intelligence. 

Howard Gardner - 

Verbal - Linguistic 

Logical - Mathematical 

Visual - Spatial 

Body - Kinesthetic



Musical - Rhythmic


Gardner believes that everyone possesses some capacity in all intelligences, but these intelligences function together in ways unique to each person.  He proposes that most people can develop each intelligence to an adequate level of competency.  Gardner determined the validity of each intelligence by reviewing such factors as the potential impairment of the intelligence by brain damage, the existence of savants and prodigies, a definable set of expert "end-state" performances, an evolutional history and plausibility, support from psychological data, an identifiable set of operations, and the use of a symbol system.

For an update from Howard Gardner himself - Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years -   Check out the Project Zero website - 


Howard Gardner

"As a young person I was a serious pianist and enthusiastically involved with other arts as well. When I began to study developmental and cognitive psychology, I was struck by the virtual absence of any mention of the arts. An early professional goal was to find a place for the arts within academic psychology. I am still trying! In 1967 my continuing interest in the arts prompted me to become a founding member of Project Zero, a basic research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education begun by a noted philosopher of art, Nelson Goodman. For 28 years, I was the co-director of Project Zero and I am happy to say that the organization continues to thrive" 

(AERA, 2003)

Research on Multiple Intelligences 

Several major researchers in the area of multiple intelligences have websites with published materials and articles.  These authors have published in popular magazines as well as peer-reviewed journals.

General Research Findings

 Eight Intelligence Domains - Howard Gardner

Verbal Linguistic



  • Use words effectively and have highly-developed auditory skills
  • Enjoy reading, playing word games, and writing
  • Have good memory for verse, lyrics, or trivia
  • Saying, hearing, and seeing words


  • Think conceptually, abstractly, and are able to see and explore patterns and relationships
  • Enjoy reasoning, calculating, playing logic games, solving puzzles
  • Likes brain teasers, logical puzzles, and strategy games.
  • Categorizing and classifying
  • working with abstract patterns and relationships.


  • Like movement and communicate well through body language and physical activity
  • Excel at hands-on learning
  • Process knowledge through bodily sensations – moving, touching, manipulation, role plays, creative movement
  • Touching, moving, interacting with space
  • Processing knowledge through bodily sensations


  • Think in terms of physical space and thinks in images and pictures
  • Learn best through drawings, designs, and imagery
  • Likes mazes, jigsaw puzzles, films, diagrams, maps, charts
  • Visualizing, dreaming
  • Using the mind's eye
  • Working with colors/pictures


  • Show sensitivity to rhythm, melody, and sound
  • May study with music in the background, play an instrument, notice non-verbal sounds in the environment, learn more easily if sung or tapped out.
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Music


  • Enjoy interacting with others
  • Learn best through group activities
  • Sensitivity to facial expressions, voice and gestures and has ability to respond effectively to those cues
  • Understand and care about people and like to socialize
  • Sharing, comparing, relating
  • Cooperating
  • Interviewing
  • Are in tune with their personal inner feelings, moods, and motivations
  • Have an accurate picture of personal strengths and limitations
  • Have capacity for self-discipline
  • Learn best through independent study and introspection
  • Working alone on individualized projects
  • Self-paced instruction
  • Having own space
  • Understands the natural world including plants, animals and scientific studies.
  • Is able to recognize and classify individuals, species and ecological relationships.
  • Interacts effectively with living creatures
  • Sees patterns of life and natural forces.
  • Sensitivity to the world of nature
  • Enjoys working with plants and animals, and 
  • Enjoys observing nature

Optional Resources

What is musical intelligence?

Gardner indicates that "pitch (or melody) and rhythm: sounds emitted at certain auditory frequencies and grouped according to a prescribed system" are most central to the musical intelligence.  He explains that pitch is more important in certain cultures.  He discusses "Oriental societies that make use of tiny quarter-tone intervals" (1983).  Other cultures (such as sub-Saharan Africa) emphasize rhythm where "rhythmic ratios can reach a dizzying metrical complexity" (1983).  Gardner discusses the horizontal and vertical organization of music.  Horizontal refers to the "relationship of pitches as they unfold over time."  Vertical refers to the "effect of two or more sounds emitted at the same time, giving rise to a harmonic or a dissonant sound."  Gardner also states that timbre - the characteristic qualities of a tone, is an important element.  

Central Elements - "Cores" of Music

"Musings on the Musical Intelligence" - (ASCD)

The musical intelligence is central to human experience. It's the earliest of the intelligences to emerge--even children as young as two months old can sing and match rhythmic structures. And it's closely linked to our other intelligences--we often "feel" music with our bodies and move accordingly, we often "feel" music with our emotions, and cry or laugh accordingly. Indeed, as Howard Gardner writes in Frames of Mind (1983), many scientists believe that...

"if we can explain music, we may find the key for all human thought."

Armstrong states that the musical intelligence is the intelligence of tone, rhythm, and timbre.  Lazear describes the musical intelligence in this pop-up from 

Music is universal, crossing cultural borders, playing a significant, unifying role in the earliest history of man throughout the world.  The components of the musical intelligence, sensitivity to pitch or melody and rhythm, provide the core elements or set of operations.  Musical notation provides a complex separate symbol system.   Individuals process musical tones in the right hemisphere of the brain, but with formal training and greater competence, musicians utilize the left hemisphere as well (Gardner, 1983, pp.118-119).  The musical/rhythmic intelligence is represented in the brain in both the left and right hemispheres, as well as the limbic system (emotional).  The more formal and analytical aspects of music as a system are in the left hemisphere and the figural/experiential aspects are in the right hemisphere (Lazear).

Awakening the Musical Intelligence

A teacher can help a child develop the musical intelligence.  That intelligence must be awakened, amplified, taught, and transferred to life situations.  Intelligence is not stagnant.  Each intelligence can be awakened, strengthened by practice, and "taught" in the classroom.




Nurture or Nature?  What musical experiences did you have in your own childhood

Your "child's intelligence is shaped and influenced by his cumulative experiences over time.  Nurturing has a profound effect on intelligence. The nature-versus-nurture debate is wrongly framed — biology matters, and so does experience. Intelligence doesn't develop in a vacuum.  Your child's intelligence is being shaped, challenged, and expressed every day by experiences with people, objects, and events — especially when he is an active participant. These experiences are the raw ingredients of intelligence.  Here's more good news. These same ingredients nurture many different facets of a child's intelligence, such as the creative, the musical, the interpersonal, and the logical, as well as the Shakespeare-memorizing and geometry-learning kinds."

From Scholastic Article - 

Developing Musical Intelligence

Gardner states that the musical intelligence emerges earlier than any of the other intelligences.  He emphasizes that positive early childhood experiences, particularly those that explore the creative potential of music, are crucial to the development of the musical intelligence.  If the musical/rhythmic intelligence is recognized as an autonomous, separate intelligence, the role of the educator in fostering the development of the musical intelligence is significant.  In structuring a music curriculum which has as its goal, the development of the musical intelligence, emphasis needs to be placed on early childhood music education.  According to Armstrong (1994), developing multiple intelligences depends on three factors: 

Gardner provides a portrait of early musical competence.  In infancy, normal children sing, babble, produce undulating patterns, and imitate tones sung by others.  An important transition in their musical lives occurs in the middle of the second year of life when them begin to emit tones that explore small intervals from seconds to fourths.  They begin to invent spontaneous songs and imitate short patterns from familiar songs.  By age three or four, the original tunes and exploratory sound play give way to conformity as they begin to limit themselves to the songs of the dominant culture.  By school age, children know what a song should be according to the cultural practice.  They can produce a fairly accurate rendition of common melodies.  

Gardner claims that, for most children in our culture, there is little further musical development after the school years begin unless they exhibit unusual musical talent or have exceptional opportunities.  Musical repertoire may expand, skill in performance may improve, and knowledge about music may increase, but creative development is minimal.  Gardner states that this may be because "music occupies a relatively low niche in our culture, musical literacy is acceptable" (1983, p. 109).  Our society does not have high musical expectations for the average individual, in contract to expectations for the mastery of verbal or mathematical skills.  The multiple intelligence theory values nurture as much as nature in the development of intelligences.  Crystallizing experiences spark the musical intelligence, starting off the development of talents and abilities.  These experiences may provide a turning point for the child.  Paralyzing experiences shut down the musical intelligence, discouraging the development of talents and abilities.  A child's musical growth is easily stunted when he/she is told to "stop that racket" as he/she practices an instrument.

Project Spectrum

One practical research study by Gardner involved the emergence and nurturance of multiple intelligence in early childhood - the Spectrum Project.  This study involved a pre-school curriculum based on the theory of the multiple intelligences.  Assessment was conducted over time with materials in the child's own environment.  Gardner believed that schools stress the linguistic and logical intelligences, ignoring other intelligences.  In his book, The Unschooled Mind (1991) he stated his belief that "we consign many students who fail to to exhibit the proper 'blend' to the belief that they are stupid, and we do not take advantage of ways in which multiple intelligences can be exploited to further the goals of school and the broader culture" (Gardner, 1991, p. 81).  Project Spectrum's approach to assessment called for two types of measurement, "intelligence-fair" measures using instruments that looked at the intelligence in operation, and the Stanford-Binet intelligence test based on linguistic or logical-mathematical assessment. 

The Spectrum classroom provided a nourishing environment where pre-school children had an opportunity to explore various learning areas.  Each learning area featured  engaging materials based on particular intelligences or combinations of intelligences.  The music area included a music production activity which was designed to assess a child's ability to maintain accurate pitch and rhythm while singing, and to recall a song's musical properties.  A musical perception activity assessed a child's ability to discriminate pitch.  This activity consisted of song recognition, error recognition, and pitch discrimination.  Children observed adults or older peers as they worked and played in these areas, giving them an opportunity to appreciate the materials and the nature of the musical skills.  Musical mentors taught children how to interact with these tools in a meaningful way.  The child was assess in each domain to determine interest, approach, focus, strengths, and response.  Positive early childhood experiences, particularly those that explore the creative potential of music, are crucial to the development of the musical intelligence.

Harvard Project Zero - 

Examine the Harvard Project Zero website for information on continued research with multiple intelligences and the arts.  "Project Zero was founded at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1967 by the philosopher Nelson Goodman to study and improve education in the arts. Goodman believed that arts learning should be studied as a serious cognitive activity, but that "zero" had been firmly established about the field; hence, the project was given its name.  David Perkins and Howard Gardner served as co-directors of Project Zero from 1972 to July1, 2000, when Dr. Steve Seidel, an expert on alternative student assessment, was named Director. Currently a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Steve Seidel joined HPZ in 1987. In his research, he has explored teachers' reflective practices, the close examination of student work, and documentation of learning. Howard Gardner and David Perkins continue their active involvement with HPZ through their research and on its steering committee."

Creating Minds


In his book Creating Minds (1993), Gardner presents the lives of seven "end-state" individuals representing the seven domains of intelligence.   Gardner describes the factors that contribute to their creativity.  He uses the composer, Stravinsky, as the model of the "end-state" musical intelligence.  (See the course document with quotations from seven "end-state" individuals). 

Gardner states:

"I contend that the creator is an individual who manages a most formidable challenge: to wed the most advanced understandings achieved in a domain with the kinds of problems, questions, issues, and sensibilities that most characterized his or her life as a wonder-filled child...Individuals who ultimately make creative breakthroughs tend from their earliest days to be explorers, innovators, tinkerers."  

Importance of Mentors or Masters in Developing "End-State" Intelligence

Gardner descriptions the triangle of creativity, which includes three organizing themes.  The first is the relationship between the child and the master.  The second is the relationship between an individual and his work.  The third relationship is between an individual and other persons whose role has been crucial throughout their development (Creating Minds, 1993, p. 8).  The significance of the music teacher as master or mentor in the process of educating the musical intelligence is emphasized by another research project, Harvard Project Zero.  Project Zero determined that students needed to be introduced to the ways that practicing artists and those involved in the arts think as they analyze, criticize, and investigate the arts within our culture.   Meaningful production of art under the guidance of artistic mentors is thought to be of central importance.


Application of Multiple Intelligences Research in Alternative Assessment 

by Joseph Walters: 

The biographies of famous musicians, like those of mathematicians, contain many stories of the early emergence of extraordinary talent at an early age, even before the child has received musical training. For example, at the age of 3, Arthur Rubinstein was taken to the great teacher and violist, Jacob Joachim, because his parents, who themselves lacked musical training, recognized his extraordinary talent. In this interview, young Arthur was asked to call out chords struck on the piano, to play a theme from a Schubert symphony after Joachim had hummed it, and to add the correct harmonies to the phrase and to transpose it. Joachim concluded from this brief interaction: “This boy may become a great musician... he certainly has the talent for it. Let him hear some good singing, but do not force music on him. When the time comes for serious study, bring him to me and I shall be glad to supervise his artistic education.” (Rubinstein, 1978). Of course, Joachim was correct in his assessment and Rubinstein returned to Berlin to study with Joachim five years later.

Our review of the empirical evidence, including biographies of child prodigies like Rubinstein, studies of brain-damaged adults, reports on idiot savants, cross-cultural accounts, as well as the child development literature, supports the inclusion of musical aptitude on our list of intelligences. Even though it runs counter to our first intuitions of what constitutes “intelligent” behavior, musical aptitude belongs on our list along with linguistic and logical-mathematical aptitude.

In the view of Multiple Intelligences, all seven faculties are equivalent -- some are not more “important” than others. Although twentieth-century western society values the linguistic and logical skills most highly and offers rewards to those who excel in these areas, other cultures value the intelligences differently. We must be careful to distinguish the psychological level, on which the intelligences are equivalent, from the sociological level, on which the intelligences may be differentiated.

"The Role of Musical Intelligence in a Multiple Intelligences Focused Elementary School" 

What is Musical Intelligence?

Two important facets of MI theory appear to have significant bearing on the nature of musical intelligence. First is the premise that the intelligences can be educated or developed through schooling and learning (Gardner, 1993 p.334). For example, if someone learns to play an instrument, the knowledge to be acquired is musical. The material mastered falls squarely in the domain of musical intelligence. Secondly is the premise that the intelligences may each be exploited as a means of transmission, often referred to as an entry point or catalyst for learning all manner of content (Gardner, 1993, 1995a, 1996).
For many educators, musical intelligence is often regarded as a talent derived from natural ability, or a gift that only certain people possess (Gardner, 1993, Hinckley, 1998, Reimer, 1998). Intelligence associated with musical understanding does not always relate to superior levels of achievement in other academic areas. Yet MI theory holds that the nurturing and development that takes place in musical learning is autonomous and on par with the processes that take place in studying languages, mathematics and the sciences (Potter, 1997, p.3). Thus, musical intelligence (like all intelligences) can serve as both form or means of learning, and message or content learned (Gardner, 1993, p. 334).
Susan W. Mills - 


Copyright 2003 by Carla Piper, Ed. D.