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Musical Intelligence: Sensing and Interpreting Music in the Brain

by Howard Gardner

According to my definition, an intelligence should not be tied uniquely to a single sensory system. Linguistic intelligence operates, whether one listens, reads, or detects patterns in Braille; spatial intelligence is active in individuals who are blind.

sheet-musicFor that reason, musical intelligence has posed a dilemma for me. On the one hand, it seems to be a quite separate human faculty, one analogous in power and complexity to numerical or linguistic computation, and worthy of including within the family of intelligences. On the other hand, for most persons, for most of the period of history, musical creation and perception has been closely tied to the auditory system. I have had to play the ‘rhythm’ card to base music’s super-sensory status on the multi-modality status of rhythm and on the importance of bodily intelligence in the production of musical patterns.

But as technology improves, and as our understanding of the human brain increases, it seems increasingly likely that music can be dissociated, in significant part, from the “auditory-exclusivity channel.” We have already experienced many efforts to visualize musical compositions, some obviously more successful than others, some algorithmic, others involving considerable artistic choice. At concerts now, we see interpreters attempting to convey the sounds and words of musical compositions to deaf individuals in the audience. I take seriously the views of neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug: “Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain.”

Recent studies have also shown the ability of music to boost cognitive development in the young, to facilitate more effective processing of information from the senses, and to create connectivity between different parts of the brain. To read more, please click here.