Musical intelligence refers to a person’s ability to play musical instruments, appreciate music, and compose original musical pieces.
They are able to pick-up rhythms and patterns found in various musical genres and can recall songs and melodies with ease.
Musical intelligence is one of Howard Gardner’s (1983) 8 types of multiple intelligences.
According to Gardner, musical intelligence is a separate and distinct form of intelligence that not all human beings possess in abundance.
Mozart and Beethoven are probably the most famous people that we would identify as having exceptional musical intelligence in Western culture. More contemporary examples would include Michael Jackson and Elton John.
Examples of Musical Intelligence
1. Innate Whistling Skills
We might not think of whistling as being an example of musical intelligence because it is so simple, but whistling is a form of music and has many attributes that are consistent with Gardner’s definition.
For example, whistling includes being able to produce a desired rhythm, pitch, and tone. It can create an emotional response in listeners, and being able to reproduce a song also requires a certain degree of musical talent.
So, although being able to whistle might not seem like a form of musical intelligence, it does require several skills that constitute this domain.
2. Ability to Discern Musical Genres Easily
A musical genre refers to different kinds of music based on various shared characteristics.
The characteristics can involve the rhythm and pace of the music, the types of instruments used, and its overall style. The most common genres in modern Western culture include: rock, R&B, jazz, the blues, hip hop, and country.
Some people are just very good at listening to a song and knowing immediately what musical genre it belongs to. They can even identify and explain subtle variations within a specific genre. For example, within the rock and roll genre there are several sub-types, such as pop-rock, classic rock, heavy metal, punk rock, and grunge, just to name a few.
3. Ability to Compose Music Easily
Being able to write a great song is a rare gift indeed. Although a song might sound simple when we listen to it, there was actually a long creative process involved.
Sometimes when musicians talk about how a particularly famous song came about, they will reveal that the idea for the song came in one unexpected moment.
But after that, the real work begins. It might have taken weeks to put the final version of the song together. This can involve rehearsing the song, then recording it, then listening to it and making tons of changes and slight adjustments; all on the road to creating a masterpiece.
Making all of those adjustments and fine-tuning exercise many characteristics of musical intelligence. Eventually, the song is completed and becomes the great hit that we know it as today.
4. Finding yourself Tapping Your Foot
People that have musical intelligence will naturally tap their foot to the rhythm of a song.
They might not even do it consciously; it just happens automatically. Their brain is hard-wired to respond to music and so when they hear a song, they start tapping along.
A person with not so much musical intelligence will find this seemingly simple act quite difficult. They may have to listen to the song very intently and really concentrate. Even then, their rhythm is likely to go off beat occasionally as their mind wanders and they start to consciously think about other things.
Being able to easily tap along to songs of various rhythms is an example of musical intelligence.
5. Ability to Recall Tunes in your Mind
Some people have an uncanny ability to hum a tune that they have heard only once. These people may be considered to be musically intelligent.
Other people, however, may remember that a tune was playing but when they try to hum it back to themselves, they seem to be grasping at straws. They just can’t quite remember how it went.
This ability to recall tunes, hum them, and remember exactly what pitch and tempo they were playing at, is a sign that you’ve got at least some innate musical intelligence.
6. Perfect Pitch
Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a sound and know unaided the exact pitch of that sound.
About 1 in 10,000 people and 4% of music learners are considered to have perfect pitch. These people tend to be excellent musicians.
For the rest of us, we tend to live on a spectrum of abilities to hear pitch. For example, most musicians and even many general music listeners can hear when a sound is a little off. Most of us know intuitively what a good singer sounds like.
But not many people have that perfect pitch ability to name the exact note a bird is singing in the garden.
7. Being Motivated by Musical Learning Environments
In the classroom, teachers will often use music in their lesson plans to motivate musical learners.
For example, a teacher may decide to teach math through song or a literature teacher have students deconstruct the meaning of songs rather than books.
These strategies acknowledge that musical learners are energized through music. If music is integrated into the lesson, it may be a way to draw those students into the lesson.
Famous People with Musical Intelligence
Mozart is regarded as one of the most influential composers in the Western canon. His prolific composition and skills as a classical musician have earned him the title of one of the biggest game-changers in history.
Undoubtedly, Mozart was so good at music due to his natural musical intelligence.
Mozart began composing with a piano at an early age. He quickly developed the ability to write remarkable and complex pieces that no one else his age could do.
He was a perfectionist, constantly striving to self-improve. He would experiment with new ways of relating to music and new ways to impress his audiences.
In addition, Mozart had an uncanny ability to bring out emotions in his music.
He was able to communicate a wide range of emotions, from joy and exuberance to sorrow and longing.
Alongside Mozart, Beethoven was famed as one of the greatest composers of the classical era.
Beethoven started out as a pianist, but quickly progressed to be a prolific composer of epic symphonies like Ode to Joy, which today is the anthem of the European Union.
Beethoven was also an extremely hard worker. He would spend 12 hours a day perfecting his pieces.
Undoubtedly, Beethoven was a character of extreme musical intelligence who changed music forever.
10. Michael Jackson
A more modern example of a person with musical intelligence was Michael Jackson.
Jackson was identified as a child prodigy when singing with his siblings in the Jackson 5. Into adulthood, Jackson took R&B music to a whole new level. He would obsess over every beat, then pair the music with perfectly choreographed dances.
Later in life, Jackson’s behaviors outside of his music brought him into disrepute. Nevertheless, his discography remains a testament to a person whose musical intelligence stood above others of his generation.
Pros of Musical Intelligence
1. Ability to Play Musical Instruments
An added benefit of having musical intelligence can sometimes include the ability to play a musical instrument. Not always of course, because the definition of musical intelligence is not solely defined by possessing musical talent.
Musical intelligence can be manifest in a variety of ways, being able to play an instrument is just one. However, it is a great one to have. Moreover, the ability to play one instrument is usually linked to being able to play other instruments.
For example, if a person can play one wind instrument, such as a clarinet, then they can probably also play a flute. Similarly, being able to play the drums means being able to also play the xylophone and bongos.
2. Music can be a Great Emotional Outlet
People with musical intelligence possess a natural emotional outlet that many people do not have. When feeling frustrated or upset about something, they can exercise their talent for playing a musical instrument to release all of that pent-up tension.
In fact, musical therapy is a career for people with musical intelligence. It involves using music to help people recover from psychological concerns.
Instead of allowing the day’s events to build-up and accumulate to the point that they feel like exploding, they can pick up their favorite instrument and begin playing. All that negative energy is transformed into musical notes. In addition, while they are playing their mind is completely focused on hitting the notes and keeping the beat. All of those negative thoughts from work become virtually non-existent.
3. Music is Good for the Brain
People with higher levels of musical intelligence like to listen to music. Many of them may actually play a musical instrument as well.
This seems fairly straightforward. But what is even more interesting is what listening to music or playing an instrument does to the brain.
For example, just passively listening to a song activates several areas of the brain, including: the temporal gyri, cerebellum, amygdala, hippocampus, and various areas linked to reward. When the neurons in these areas are activated, they become stronger and denser. And that’s a good thing.
For musicians, the effect is even more pronounced. As Dr. Oliver Sacks states in his book Musicophilia, “Anatomists would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation” (Barry, 2010).
Cons of Musical Intelligence
1. It’s Difficult to Measure
If you are a scientist then you really want to be able to measure what you are studying. The more precise that measurement is, the better. Unfortunately, accurately measuring musical intelligence seems to be quite challenging.
There are several reasons for this. For instance, the construct of musical intelligence is multifaceted. That is, it is comprised of numerous abilities, such as: being able to discern pitch and rhythm, recognize patterns in musical genres, the ability to play a variety of musical instruments, not to mention a penchant for memorizing lyrics, just to name a few.
How should a scientist go about measuring each one of those components? Finding a solution has been a tremendous obstacle to research.
2. It’s not a Very Scientific Concept
Gardner’s theory of musical intelligence has been subject of widespread criticism by scholars.
The theory doesn’t have much solid evidence backing it up. What Gardner calls ‘intelligence’ might simply be an aptitude.
Furthermore, the concept of multiple intelligences makes people think they can’t be good at things that require other so-called intelligences.
As a result, many students decide that they are just born bad at music, or math, or spatial intelligences, so they decide not to make any effort in any discipline that’s not their preferred discipline.
Many people claim to have musical intelligence. Knowledge of how music motivates you and awareness of the fact that it comes easy to you is great for your own self-reflection.
But there are still questions about whether it should be called “intelligence”. Perhaps this is just a gimmicky word for aptitude, talent, or even a domain of interest.
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Fonseca-Mora, C., Toscano-Fuentes, C. & Wermke, K. (2011). Melodies that help: The relation between language aptitude and musical intelligence. International Journal of English Studies, 22(1), 101-118. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1815339
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Dave Cornell (PhD)
Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.
Chris Drew (PhD)
This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.