January 22, 2021

Musical Intelligence

The capacity to distinguish the whole realm of sound and, in particular, to discern, appreciate and apply the various aspects of music (pitch, rhythm, timbre and mood), both separately and holistically.


  • A keen sense of hearing.
  • Enjoys a wide range of music.
  • Fascination with sound.
  • Remembers tunes and may sing along with songs.
  • Good sense of rhythm and may tap along with the beat.
  • Good sense of pitch and may harmonise spontaneously.
  • Able to differentiate different instruments.


The majority of musical capacities (including melody recognition and generation) are localised in the right hemisphere of the brain. However rhythm, naming songs, and reading musical notation are left-brain activities.

Children who have had 2 or 3 years instrumental tuition (prior to age 9 or so) demonstrate enhanced maths and problem-solving skills.

Non-musicians focus on the overall contours of a melody using the right side of the brain: musicians are more analytical and tend to use the left-brain more.

Shostakovich had a metallic shell fragment in his brain that he was reluctant to have removed because it helped to generate melodies when he tilted his head, which he was then able to use when composing.


  • Performing musician.
  • Composing music.
  • Recording studio.
  • Entertainment.
  • Theatre.
  • TV & radio.
  • Film & video.
  • Creative advertising.
  • Music retailers.


  • Listening to music.
  • Singing.
  • Playing a musical instrument.
  • Dancing (if also physical).


  • Seguin and Treffert reported on “Blind Tom” (the 14th child of a Negro slave – deemed to be an idiot) who was able to play lengthy piano compositions after only a single hearing. As a party piece, he was able to play different songs with left and right hands, whilst singing a third!
  • Beethoven.
  • Tchaikovsky.
  • Paul McCartney (popular musician)


  • If appropriate, play different kinds of music while you work, experimenting to see which “works best” for you.
  • Use music to help create the right “mood” for what you are doing.
  • Learn to play an instrument.
  • Listen to a wide range of musical styles, including Oriental and African music.
  • Close your eyes and listen carefully to the variety of sounds around you. Pick out their direction and source.


  • Music with a tempo of approx. 60 beats per minute (eg: Baroque) facilitates generation of beta waves in the brain, which leads to a relaxed receptivity.
  • Keywords that are incorporated into the lyrics of raps, songs or jingles are easier to remember.
  • The ability of music to evoke emotions and memories means that it can also be used as a powerful aid to revision. Play different background music for each topic you study – and the association will facilitate recall.
  • Sound-maps


  • Paper and pencil for each student.
  • Coloured pens or pencils.


Students work individually.

This is an exercise in active listening.

Without speaking to each other, for a period of 3 or 4 minutes, students are encouraged to listen carefully to the sounds around them. These may include ticking clocks; birds or other animals; the wind and its effect on trees, doors or windows; traffic; people talking or moving outside the room.

As they hear each sound, students locate the direction of the sound and either write it or draw it onto their paper, placing it in the appropriate position to show where the sound came from.

At the end of the listening time, students are encouraged to talk as a group about the sounds they heard, what might have made those sounds and where they were.

Students should be encouraged to think of imaginative ways of describing the sounds they hear. Do dogs always bark? Don’t they also growl, yelp, whine or whimper? Do clocks always tick? Or do they sometimes sound like pit or pink?

Drawn sound-maps could form the basis of a piece of artwork.

Written sound-maps could form the basis of a poem or piece of descriptive writing.

Face the music

Recognising & developing musical intelligence

For many years it has been recognised that the two halves of our brain (“left” and “right”) govern different aspects of our behaviour. Whereas the left half of our brain is more logical, the right half is more creative. Whereas the left brain is concerned with language, maths and ordered material, the right half deals with spatial awareness, creativity and emotions.

As part of his theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner asserts that musical intelligence is a separate intellectual competence whose function can be located to a particular area of the brain. “Whereas linguistic abilities are lateralised almost exclusively to the left hemisphere in normal right-handed individuals, the majority of musical capacities … are localised in most normal individuals in the right hemisphere.” (Howard Gardner “Frames of Mind”)

Psychologists are divided about how to interpret the individual’s response to music. Is it merely a set of conventions (that have arisen within a cultural context) or is the brain “wired for music” in the same way as Chomsky suggests that we are genetically predisposed to learning language? Although there may appear to be parallels between the way we process music and the way we process language, we appear to develop particular schemas that are particularly dedicated to hearing music. Gardner cites Jeanne Bamberger, a musician and developmental psychologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who insists that “musical thinking involves its own rules and constraints and cannot simply be assimilated to linguistic or logical-mathematical thinking.” Igor Stravinsky maintained that composing was not only independent of language and words but also of thinking.

Gardner suggests that new-born children are predisposed to certain aspects of music (such as pitch, melody and rhythm) and that this finds expression in the spontaneous creation of simple “songs”. During the first years of life, these come into competition with characteristic bits of familiar tunes that the child comes to learn from repetition. The melodies of the dominant culture eventually gain the upper hand, so that children (by the age of 5 or 6) have a schema of what constitutes a song (characterised by cultural influence) and can reproduce familiar tunes fairly accurately.

This natural “musical intelligence” can be enhanced or restricted by circumstance, including provision or lack of opportunity; positive or negative influences exerted by family and peers; early success or failure shaping the individual’s perception of their ability; and conflicting interests.

Those who would seek to judge an individual’s “musical intelligence” must be cautious to avoid making judgements on the basis of the candidate’s knowledge of music. This includes both the theory of music (names and values of notes; structures and progression of chords; etc) and the body of received knowledge (composers and musicians associated with the various types and styles of music, etc.) that is often evident in those who are deemed knowledgeable in this domain. Such a body of knowledge can be assumed by someone with little natural flair for producing (or even appreciating) music; whereas those with a natural ability in this domain may nevertheless have been hampered in their acquisition of such a body of knowledge (and the accompanying vocabulary) by the accident of birth or upbringing. Hence, there is a need to focus on practical competence rather than factual knowledge.

Even here, we must be cautious that we are not deceived by an individual’s ability to play a musical instrument, even if the candidate has achieved a significant level of performance (as recognised by the various examining bodies). Although present developed ability may be the result of a natural ability coupled with the opportunity to make progress in the domain, it may equally be the result of a limited (or even stunted) natural ability coupled with diligent application and nurtured by encouragement. A more reliable indicator might be the candidate’s ability to produce a musical response spontaneously and without benefit of prolonged instruction. Although the performance may be less polished, it may nevertheless be more evocative or inspirational.

In an interesting experiment at Wales Elementary School in Wisconsin, students who have taken free music lessons have shown a remarkable improvement in their problem-solving ability. Students who signed up for the twice-weekly piano lessons scored 50% higher than other children. Frances Rauscher, professor of psychology at Wisconsin University, explains that “Children are born with all the neurons they’ll ever have, but the connections between neurons are formed after birth, and it’s those connections that determine intelligence.

(Times Educational Supplement 18 December 1998)

Aileen Alexander-Bolton, a maths teacher at Bellarmine Roman Catholic Secondary School in Glasgow, is enthusiastic about using music in the classroom. “It’s amazing, the class visibly relaxes. They concentrate for longer and get better results.” Aileen favours the use of Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi.


When it comes to recognising enhanced musical intelligence in a child, the primary indicator would appear to be the child’s expression of interest in music and the means of making music. This may be little more than physical and facial signs of enjoyment or it may manifest itself in a variety of ways such as singing along with songs (linguistic accuracy notwithstanding) or dancing and keeping time with music.

Some children may improvise songs or melodies as they play or may produce spontaneous rhythmic clapping, tapping or banging. This particular ability can be assessed formally by testing the child’s ability to reproduce rhythmic clapping patterns.

The child’s interest may extend, if provided with appropriate opportunity, to inquisitiveness of the means of making music. The child may show expressions of awe or wonder during instrumental performance or demonstration, accompanied by a readiness to explore or experiment with the instruments themselves. This experimentation may be accompanied by studious listening, another important indicator. Children’s ability to distinguish whether music is “going up or down”, and by how much, is a sign of a “good ear”; the ability to distinguish tonal difference. Although this can be taught to older students, evidence of the ability in younger students may be an indicator of innate musical ability. Children may also demonstrate the ability to improvise musically, either when playing simple instruments or vocally.

Several of these abilities may combine to give the impression that the child is able to learn more quickly than others.

Having identified candidates with a natural proclivity towards music, it is no less important to employ a means of developing musical skills and ability that takes account of the likely predisposition of the musically intelligent candidate for using the right brain hemisphere. Traditional musical training, although it may seek to capitalise on natural ability, often seeks to effect a shift from a figural, instinctive mode of processing towards the more formal mode of analysis. The more musical training an individual has received the more likely he is to call upon left hemisphere mechanisms to solve a musical problem which the novice candidate tackles intuitively using the right hemisphere. This may require a re-examination of those teaching techniques and methods that have long formed the mainstay of music teaching but which may have served, despite the best intentions of the tutor, merely to discourage the potential music student from pursuing their interest.

What is needed is a system for teaching music that seeks to develop the candidate’s natural right-brain approach. That is, one that seeks to develop the creative aspects of music without undue emphasis (initially, at least) on the formal aspects of reading and writing musical notation. Paul McCartney, widely recognised as one of the most popular and prolific composers of this present age, would attest to the effectiveness of just such an approach from his own experience; and the Liverpool Academy of Performing Arts, established by McCartney, upholds just such a philosophy.

Musical ability is an innate ability that, when triggered, can become the focus for success in a child’s life and the catalyst for the development of their self-esteem.

Music is the vehicle for raising children’s self-esteem and a means of stimulating their interest in learning.

A recent study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests that children who learn to play a musical instrument are more likely than non-players to have good memories in later life.

Professor Agnes Chan and her colleagues compared 30 students who had taken music lessons before the age of 12 with 30 students who had never taken lessons. Candidates were set to memorise lists of orally presented words. Those adults who had taken music lessons as children demonstrated significantly better memory skills for spoken information though their performance at remembering visually presented information was not significantly improved.

Reasons for the improvement are not clear-cut. There are suggestions that it may be due to enhanced neuronal pathway capacity. Whereas musical ability is acknowledged as a right-brain function, research using brain scanning technology carried out at the Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf shows that musicians have a well developed left hemisphere, particularly that region that is involved in verbal memory. This is because learning music usually involves students in a complex co-ordination of left and right brain activities. If students learn to play an instrument early enough in life, this could aid in developing patterns of thinking that later prove to be useful in forming mnemonic associations.

Alternatively, it may be that students’ competence in music serves to build their self-confidence as learners, thus enabling them to develop a wider range of learning strategies.

Whichever explanation is closer to the truth, Professor Chan’s findings would appear to emphasise the importance of including music in the curriculum for every child as a means of developing their learning capacity.


Not only do we need to address the issue of developing the musical skills of those who are “musically intelligent” – but we also need to think about how we can use the natural musical skills that some people exhibit as a means of developing their self-esteem.

Mary Wallace, a former head teacher, has a particular interest in this issue. She is certain that musical ability is independent of general or academic ability and quotes examples of children who, when provided with the opportunity, proved that they could shine at music, despite retarded reading ages and lack of either stimulation or encouragement within the home. Mary sees musical ability as an innate ability that, when triggered, can become the focus for success in a child’s life and the catalyst for the development of their self-esteem, occasionally with dramatic results. In her experience, recognition of success in music had been the turning point for an elective mute, an habitual thief and a number of truants. Discovery of their “hidden talent” provided a stimulus that generated a renewed self-perception and new behaviour patterns. Paul Carlile, also a head teacher, can also quote similar examples and is fervent in his belief that “some children have got natural ability”. Paul maintains that it is possible to detect a small number of children in each reception class whose responses to music are significantly different.

Speaking of children who have shown some disaffection with school and may be “totally uncooperative in the classroom with a teacher”, Mary Wallace has noticed nevertheless that they may be “captured” by music. “You can see by their expression and by their body language how much enjoyment they’re getting from hearing and making music.” Mary Wallace and her staff were even prepared to divert funds into activities that promote participation in music in the belief that “success breeds success and raises self-esteem.” Hence, music is the vehicle for raising children’s self-esteem and a means of stimulating their interest in learning. Similarly, Paul Carlile is a keen exponent of using the “feel-good factor” within music to engage children’s interest. Music “accesses their emotions and makes them feel good,” he says.


Although it contradicts what many of us may have been led to believe, there are a number of teachers who maintain that the use of music within the classroom creates a friendly and comfortable environment within which students find it easier to learn. Cynics may argue that students will merely stop what they are doing in order to listen dreamily, but in fact, apart from occasional protests about the choice of music, they usually exhibit a mature attitude. It is important that the music is not a distraction; hence it is wise to steer clear of anything with lyrics or a heavy beat. Those who have been bold enough to experiment have reported success with choices as diverse as Baroque music, “Tubular Bells” and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo choral group. The really daring might try using different kinds of music (soothing, relaxing, stimulating, etc.) to create different moods.


As well as using “mood music”, there are other ways in which we can harness the potential of music as a medium for enhancing the effectiveness of learning. Many of us have no doubt been surprised by our own ability to recall lyrics of songs that we have not heard for many years; our memories apparently being stimulated by the musical association. Advertisers are well aware of this phenomenon and pay great attention to choosing and using catchy tunes to reinforce their message. As teachers and trainers, perhaps we should orchestrate those vital key points that we want our students to recall. I have encountered many examples of the ingenuity of teachers, many of whom have set to music such entertaining lyrics as “the atomic weights table” and “the square on the hypotenuse”.

I still remember graphically my experience as a young student helping out at a local Sunday school. I was “gobsmacked” (a word I had only recently learned) by the ability of a snotty-nosed five-year-old to recite all 66 books of both Old and New Testaments. The secret, of course, lay in the music that accompanied the doggerel.

Whereas we must recognise that not all teachers and trainers are budding Tim Rice-s, we should be careful not to underestimate the talents of our students. I have been delighted by the creativity of my own students on more than one occasion. Failing this, most of us can use simple rhythmic repetition to help reinforce otherwise un-memorable material. This is a tried and trusted method that requires very little effort to increase the repertoire of available chants, yet one which can prove remarkably effective for a broad spectrum of students.

Whatever our musical tastes or talents, from the accomplished performer to the tone-deaf, there would appear to be some benefit for all in exploring the use of music in the classroom. If it helps to create a comfortable climate for learning, enables our students to identify new (and more effective) learning strategies, and encourages them to think of themselves as successful learners then it is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.

About G. Tso