“Musical Intelligence”: Applying Howard Gardner’s Theory to Music Education

It has been almost thirty years since Howard Gardner published his landmark work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gardner transformed the educational community in the United States and around the world with his theory, which identified seven different human capacities that all individuals possess:

  1. Verbal – Liguistic
  2. Logical – Mathematical
  3. Visual – Spatial
  4. Body – Kinesthetic
  5. Intrapersonal
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Musical – Rhythmic

In later years, he proposed additional intelligences known as “Naturalist” and “Spiritual.” In exploring this broad spectrum of human understanding, Gardner critiqued the notion “that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments.”

While Gardner was principally writing as a psychologist for Frames of Mind, his ideas have been adopted by teachers of all levels and subjects. For music educators, in particular, the idea of a “musical intelligence” highlights the value of arts in education. Gardner argued, furthermore, that everyone “possesses some capacity in all the intelligences,” which he referred to as “ways of knowing and understanding yourself and the world around you.”
His findings encourage educators to create environments in which all these capacities can be explored.

Gardner also highlighted the lives of celebrated artists and creative minds (Stravinsky and Picasso among them) to illustrate that certain individuals learn best within the patterns of a particular intelligence. Here are the criteria that Gardner identified for “Musical- Rhythmic Intelligence”:

  1. Shows sensitivity to patterns and regularities of rhythm, melody, and sound.
  2. Learns best if concepts are sung or tapped out.
  3. May acquire information best with music in the background.
  4. Notices non-verbal sounds in the environment.
  5. Plays an instrument.

The lesson for educators is that students may access what is being taught through any one or several of these various intelligences. Some ways for all educators to help students access the curriculum through music are as follows:

  • Clap rhythms to signal routines
  • Sing songs to illustrate concepts or help memorize curriculum
  • Use instruments and rap poetry and stories
  • Perform musical plays within the curriculum
  • Explore instruments to teach about different cultures
  • Use background music to enhance a variety of work periods

For more information, you can refer to Howard Gardner’s prolific written work. A comprehensive list is available via Gardner’s website.

So, with Gardner’s Theory in mind, do you think music should be an essential subject in the school curriculum? Should having knowledge of the theory of Multiple Intelligences affect the way in which we teach? What are some of the teaching ideas you’ve incorporated in your classroom to ensure that students who are musical intelligent learn best? Be sure to add a comment as The Fun Music Company Community values your thoughts.

1 Comment

  • By Don Findlay and family Reply

    I definitely feel that music should be a basic part of EVERY school curriculum whether large numbers of students choose to participate or not. We maneuver students into what are known as “core” subjects without them having any say in the choice because we know those subjects are vital. To dismiss music as something that students don’t “choose” to do – demonstrated by a lack of sufficient enrollment to justify keeping it in the curriculum is to condemn our rationale for “requiring” students to take “core” subjects. In the same way that we value Language Arts, Math, History, and Science, Music must be equally valued and promoted by decision makers for very similar reasons.

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