Musical Intelligence: Definition, Experiments & Characteristics

By Mia Belle Frothingham, published July 15, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Have you ever been complimented for your ability to play an instrument? Maybe you appreciate listening to and writing music. Are you good at identifying rhythms, patterns, and pitches in music? Do you learn concepts much easier when you turn them into songs?

If so, you have demonstrated elements of musical intelligence. As stated by Howard Gardner, musical intelligence is one of nine multiple intelligences, summarized in his influential work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983).

Gardner asserted that intelligence is not a single intellectual capacity of a person but rather a combination of nine distinct kinds of bits of intelligence. People with musical intelligence tend to think in terms of patterns.

For example, they look for new knowledge patterns to increase their learning. They also seek patterns in speech and language. They can recall things, like grocery lists or vocabulary words, by turning them into lyrics or rhymes.

Generally, people with musical intelligence have a tremendous appreciation of music.

In other words, these individuals think differently, more inclined to think about music and rhythms. Individuals with musical intelligence can hear and identify patterns quickly. They are susceptible to beat and sound. For instance, they can readily distinguish the sound of a clarinet from the sound of a flute.

Famous People with High Musical Intelligence

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: of course, perhaps one of history's greatest composers. Beethoven wrote many of his best pieces after going deaf. He expressed that he imagined the notes - of every single instrument you would find in an orchestra - all in his head.

  • Michael Jackson: the late pop singer, mesmerized millions with his sense of rhythm, musical ability and seeming capacity to defy the laws of physics in his dance moves.

  • Miles Davis: a great trumpeter who, as a bandleader and composer, was one of the significant influences on music and jazz from the late 1940s. Davis was praised as a musical genius and glorified for the beauty and sensitivity of his playing.

  • Jimi Hendrix: a history-making guitarist. Hendrix was one of the very first guitarists to use tone-altering effects units in mainstream rock extensively. Hendrix was the first musician to use stereophonic phasing effects in recordings.

People with musical intelligence usually:

  • Seek patterns in their environment.

  • Are drawn to sound.

  • Quickly memorize phrases and words in foreign languages

  • Enjoy dancing and singing.

  • Have a heightened level of understanding of the musical structure, notes, tone, and rhythm.

  • Use patterning to recall things.

  • Have a good rhythm.

  • Are skilled at playing several instruments.

  • Are zealous about music.

  • Have the ability to remember songs easily.

Musical intelligence is dedicated to how skilful an individual is in performing, writing, and appreciating music and musical patterns. People who excel in this intellect can usually use rhythms and patterns to aid learning.

Not surprisingly, musicians, composers, band directors, and music critics are among those that Gardner sees as having high musical intelligence.

Inspiring and encouraging young children to improve their musical intelligence means using music, art, theater, and dance to develop a student's skills and understanding within and across disciplines.

Some investigators, however, feel that musical intelligence should genuinely be considered not as intelligence but viewed instead as a talent. They argue that musical intelligence is a talent because it does not have to adjust to meet life's everyday needs.

What are the Characteristics of Musical Intelligence?

Here we highlight the varied characteristics that are associated with musical intelligence:

Thinking Musically

People who have high musical intelligence tend to think in a more abstract thought in the form of music. They love associating their thoughts with melodies, beats, tones, and rhythms.

Appreciating Music

Obviously, these people have a high appreciation for music in all aspects. They love to listen to music, perform intricate musical pieces, and can just sit down and appreciate every aspect of music they listen to.

Composing & Writing Music

People with high musical intelligence love to think of new ways to create new sounds, melodies, and music. Therefore, they love to compose musical pieces.

Picking Apart Musical Elements

In this same vein, they love to pick apart almost any work of music and identify the sounds of all of the instruments or samples involved. They love to think about the creativity that is put into musical compositions.

Playing Musical Instruments

Typically, people with high musical intelligence can read sheet music and the musical staff. However, sometimes these people do not need sheet music or guidance to play beautiful pieces.

They often play multiple musical instruments. Therefore, they have come very attuned to "perfect pitch", which allows them to identify whether something is out of tune, melody, or rhythm.

Music is Everywhere, All the Time

People with high musical intelligence constantly need the presence of music in their lives. Simply, music is part of their day-to-day life. They frequently listen to music, or they will hum or sing songs if there is a rare silence.

Why is Musical Intelligence Important?

Young students with this kind of intelligence can bring a wide range of skill sets into the classroom, including rhythm and a fondness for patterns. Gardner claimed that musical intelligence was akin to having higher linguistic intelligence.

Researchers have found reasons why music instruction can influence intelligence. They conclude that there are many reasons why musical intelligence is crucial, especially for children. 

  1. Musical interaction and lessons require focus. Therefore it teaches children to practice their patience and be more able to focus on other topics. 

  2. Learning musical notation is an excellent skill to practice. It requires children to decode, similar to them learning how to read. These codes are translated into precise motor patterns, thus developing a motor memory.

  3. The student learns to use the rules of pattern formation. 

  4. Music penetrates through the ear and is accordingly memorized. 

  5. The child understands to feel and comprehend ratios and fractions in the shape of quarter notes which are half as long as a half note, and so forth.

  6. Children learn to improvise within a set of musical laws and play within a knowledge base.

When playing an instrument, including the voice, the brain works at a high functioning level, supporting abstract thinking, analyzing and synthesizing. According to research done, it influences other cognitive tasks such as:

  • Visual-spatial skills

  • Reading skills

  • Abstract math abilities

  • Perceptual organization

  • Vocabulary retention

  • Verbal abilities (translating thought into sounds)

  • Memory in general 

Thus, music enters the brain's abstract functioning and has a long-term positive effect.

What do people with musical intelligence do?

Having musical intelligence includes having the capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, beats, and tone. This intelligence enables us to identify, create, reproduce, and reflect on music, as shown by composers, conductors, musicians, vocalists, and sensitive listeners.

Music Teacher

Music teachers can be one of the most influential people in a student's life. One can remember playing Three Blind Mice on one's recorder; maybe one was inspired to learn more songs.

Any student could not skillfully craft a complex melody and excellent practice with a solid music teacher. Gifting one's robust musical intelligence will be fantastic for any school system mentoring young minds with the love of music.

Songwriter

There are many songwriters out there that write about anything and everything! One could easily sit down with a pen and paper and think about any life experiences one would musically want to share with the world.

The key is to write as many songs as you can. Starting out will be difficult, but writing a lot will give you the time to practice your skills and eventually end up with an awesome song!

Singer

Are you always finding yourself excited to be stuck in traffic or taking long showers to sing your heart out? Do you love singing along to songs that are played aloud?

Tap into this passion of yours, team up with a music teacher, perfect your vocal skills, and pursue that record deal. In the meantime, practice singing lots, upload some of your best work on the internet and start gaining fans and traction with your singing career.

Music Producer

Music production is something that anyone with high musical intelligence can get into. Nowadays, learning how to be a music producer is easier than ever, and all the resources are at your fingertips.

If you love the idea of playing around with sounds, recorded samples, and making a song sound the very best it can be, this could be the most promising career move you could make. Next thing you know, you did music production for artists with some hit songs!

DJ

DJs have become increasingly popular - they have been pushed into the limelight and have taken on celebrity status in recent years.

People with high musical intelligence that take up DJing allow them to assemble some awesome beats that make people want to jump up and dance.

So as someone with solid musical smarts, taking up a career as a DJ could make you world-famous. Nevertheless, we suggest you maybe start small by landing some gigs at restaurants, weddings, and parties.

Music is Everywhere, All the Time

People with high musical intelligence constantly need the presence of music in their lives. Simply, music is part of their day-to-day life. They frequently listen to music, or they will hum or sing songs if there is a rare silence.

More possible jobs include:

  • Audiologist

  • Music promoter

  • Music retailer

  • Music therapist

  • Piano tuner

  • Recording engineer

  • Sound editor

  • Choir director

  • Music conductor

  • Music critic

  • Music publisher

  • Speech pathologist

How do People with Musical Intelligence Learn?

Musical learning style refers to an individual's capacity to understand and process sound, rhythm, patterns in sound, connections between sounds, and the ability to process rhymes and other aural information.

People with solid musical intelligence have an aptitude for learning and playing musical instruments, identifying melodies and rhythms, singing, and distinguishing diverse sounds and instruments.

People with high musical intelligence learn through listening and can recognise and respond to various sounds, including the human voice, environmental sounds, and music.

They quickly identify musical styles, collect music or musical information, and are easily delighted by sounds or any noises in their environment. They will often find symbolism in music and are able to articulate ideas and feelings through sound and melody.

They learn best when taught using voiced instruction and aural media. They concentrate on using spoken content in their association and visualization. Students have good auditory memory and may react well to jingles and verses to help memorize information they may otherwise struggle to recollect. Teachers or students may want to form a rap that covers the material to help them memorize it.

Students with auditory solid learning styles would benefit from recording class lessons. It supplies a basis for understanding and helps the individual better picture the content.

These people would benefit by creating mnemonics or acrostics to make the most of meter and rhyme to help them best remember any information they need. Teachers may want to include melody and instruments from the period covered in a history class or lectures on geography, social sciences, and other cultures.

Students may like to have background music while working or studying on projects. These people also enjoy musical games; they could want to add music to presentations. They will enjoy performing in musicals, singing or playing an instrument, or composing or selecting the music to be included.

They love music and, for most of them, music is energy. It may be easy for them to recall a long list of songs, and they can effortlessly hear music in their head, even when it is not playing around them.

They may usually surprise their friends with their power to learn a tune inside and out just by listening to it once.

David Cope and Experiments in Musical Intelligence

One of the greatest names in the history of computers as composers is David Cope, an Emeritus Professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. Cope began as a standard musician and composer, creating hundreds of works conducted around the world. His works personify what the most ambitious composers of the 1970s and '80s brought to life.

Cope began his Experiments in Musical Intelligence in 1981 due to composer writer's block. His initial idea involved creating a computer program that would have a sense of his overall musical style and the ability to follow the ideas of recent work at any given point. For example, he could request the next note, the next measure, the following ten measures, and so on. 

Cope's first exploration with "Experiments in Musical Intelligence" involved coding the laws of essential part writing or one of the principal superstructures of traditional tonal music. After much trial and error, Cope's program produced a kind of "vanilla" music which stuck to these rules. While it was correct in how the sounds move from one to another and still conform to classical harmonies, the music seemed lifeless and without much musical energy, at least to the educated ear.

Using this approach, the composed music using this approach did prove reasonably successful. Most of its output was uninteresting and generally unsatisfying. Although, Cope felt that having himself as a mediator to form abstract sets of composition rules seemed artificial and unnecessary. Also, coding new rules for each new style encountered was daunting.

Hence, Cope revised the program to create fresh output from music kept in a database. The idea was that every piece of music contains instructions for assembling different but highly related replicas of itself. When the instructions are correctly decoded, Cope hoped this could lead to exciting discoveries about musical structure and create new models of stylistically-faithful music.

Cope's rationale for discovering such instructions was based on the concept of recombinancy. Recombinancy can simply be a method for producing new music by recombining extant music into new logical series. This process is described in Cope's book Experiments in Musical Intelligence (1996). He argues that recombinancy appears everywhere as a natural evolutionary and imaginative process.

For example, all great books in the English language are formed from recombinations of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. The mystery lies not in the creation of new letters or notes but in the subtlety and grace of their recombination.

Cope's Experiments in Musical Intelligence worked using three basic principles:

  1. Deconstruction: analyze and separate into pieces

  2. Signatures: commonality - retain that which represents style

  3. Compatibility: recombinancy - recombine into unique works

Since the beginning of Experiments in Musical Intelligence, the works produced have delighted, angered, stimulated, and terrified those who have heard them. Ultimately, Cope believes that the computer is just a tool to extend our minds.

How to Improve Musical Intelligence

There are definitely some people who are born with a natural musical ability. There are some remarkable examples, such as Anthony Thomas DeBlois. DeBlois is a blind boy with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and incredibly, he knows how to play over 20 different musical instruments and can play over 8,000 compositions just from memory.

The fact that one came into this world without an early, prodigious interest in music does not mean one cannot acquire good musical intelligence. One can develop the creative aspects of music and work on this kind of language, a language that combines emotions, curiosity, rhythmic patterns, songs, and more.

Many musicians, psychologists, and educators say that music is an element of good health and a way to improve anyone's self-esteem. While it fosters creativity, it also improves attention span. In addition, music reduces anxiety, encourages contemplation, and improves social interactions.

Musical intelligence does incorporate music – but it is way more expansive than this. It consists of rhythm and rhyme, just like that found in poetry. People find it easy to learn rhythmically – which is why nursery rhymes and children's songs are so widespread – indeed, some nursery rhymes have been passed down for centuries. 

Musical intelligence is also amplified in cultures without written language as the meter of a story makes it easier to recall and repeat for many generations – often word for word.

Here are some in which one could develop one's musical intelligence include:

  • Sing in the shower, whilst driving your car – anywhere!

  • Learn to write poetry.

  • Play games that involve naming a tune.

  • Regularly read poetry

  • Go to concerts or musicals.

  • Make up a jingle of critical things you want to remember.

  • Listen to your musical collection regularly.

  • Join a choir.

  • Put on background music whilst studying, cooking, or eating.

  • Learn to play a musical instrument.

  • Spend at least one hour every week listening to a foreign style of music for you (jazz, country-western, classical, folk, heavy metal, house music)

  • Buy an electronic keyboard and learn simple pieces and chords.

  • Listen for naturally occurring melodies or rhythms in such phenomena as footsteps, birdsong, and even washing machines!

  • Learn to recognise birds by their song.

  • Create a musical autobiography by collecting songs and records that were important to you at different points in one's life.

  • Hold a reunion where all communication must be sung!

There are many benefits to improving one's musical intelligence. You can easily:

  • Identify the rhythm, tone, and melody of a musical piece.

  • Develop the ability to play a song or even modify it.

  • Improve one's ability to emotionally connect to a melody, a musical piece or a song.

  • Know about different musical genres.

  • Learn how to identify instruments.

  • Enhance one's ability to improvise rhythmic sounds using any object.

  • Compose great music.

In conclusion, a musical expression is a natural form of human communication. It is a rhythmic flow that has captivated humanity since the beginning of time. Moreover, it can make us better, more intelligent people.

Is musical intelligence rare?

Musical intelligence can be quite a rare kind of intelligence. People with this profile can effortlessly listen to sound and music and identify different patterns and notes.

This intelligence group is typically known as having the "absolute pitch." This is where a person with musical intelligence can easily create harmonies and songs and often learn to play an instrument alone by simply learning the knowledge of theory or listening to a piece of music.

However, with practice, anyone can become strong with musical intelligence.

Is musical intelligence genetic?

Researchers generally agree that genetic and environmental factors contribute to the broader realization of music ability, with the degree of music aptitude varying, not only from person to person but across various components of music ability within the same individual.

Talent is mainly about potential rather than the innate ability to perform any given skill, no matter how natural that skill may seem. Some people are naturally more robust, faster, or more intelligent than others, and these people innately navigate to athletics or academics.

Similarly, for this very reason, one would say that no one is born with the ability to play the piano. However, individuals are born with diverse degrees of musical sensitivity and inclination. Musical talent is a matter of mastery, not instinct.

Some people are born with more remarkable aptitude, develop skills on a musical instrument much faster than others and rise to higher stages of advancement.

About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Frothingham, M.B. (2022, July 15). Musical Intelligence: Definition, Experiments & Characteristics. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/musical-intelligence.html

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