Musical Intelligence, Three Systems, and the Creative Processes


Among the nine intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in his Multiple Intelligences Theory, is musical intelligence. An intelligence is a way of knowing, and different people have different ways of knowing and learning. Someone who has a prevalent musical intelligence is able to use rhythms and patterns to assist learning. Such a person will learn well using rhythm or music, and may study better with music playing in the background. This individual will enjoy listening to and creating music, and will become emotionally invested in and moved by music. Because of an affinity with rhythm, this person will tend to enjoy poetry.

In his book The Arts and Human Development, Gardner proposed three systems by which a person develops musically. These three systems initially appear in sequence, and then, as the child approaches pre-kindergarten age, they increasingly interact. The three systems are making, perceiving, and feeling. Making deals primarily with physical responses to music, and can be seen in newborn children, as they kick and wiggle in response to a musical stimulus. As musical ability grows, making actions include movement that conforms to a beat or that is an intentional layout-classroomexpressive gesture. Perceiving involves discriminant listening, having thoughts and ideas about the music, and placing the music into the context of the child’s external world. Feeling is at work when the child responds affectively to the music.

The creative processes described in the core arts standards complement Gardner’s three systems well. The making system describes the activity of a student improvising movement to music, or using the body to understand or express his or her own or the composer’s expressive intent. Making also includes conducting, and performance gestures including phrasing and finger work on an instrument. We can see that Gardner’s “making” crosses over from improvisatory creating to performance. Perceiving is very closely akin to the creative process of responding. It is through this system (Gardner) or artistic process (core arts standards) that a student analyzes, evaluates, and learns the composer’s expressive intent. These are actions that rely heavily on the cognitive domain (Bloom) or cognitive pathway (Comer), a trait Gardner attributes to the perceiving system.

Feeling also aligns with the artistic process of responding, and also with that of connecting. Connecting includes finding relevancy not only to the external world, but also to the student’s own personal world, including inner feelings, experiences, interests, abilities, context, and preferences. The feeling system, like the connecting process, requires a level of self-awareness and other-awareness that makes connection to self and others possible. As the child experiences emotional responses to situations and other people, he or she is able to connect with those emotions when they are evoked by music and at that moment recognizable as also having been evoked by someone or something else. Early on, these responses are broad, including “happy,” “sad,” “scary,” or “funny.” Later, with more life experience, they become deeper and more varied, and may include shades of happy, sad, scary or funny, including melancholy, blue, whimsical, suspenseful, rhapsodic, or jovial.

One final thought on musical intelligence. As proposed by Gardner, and as explained by Gordon, musical intelligence is not so much something that is taught as it is something that is possessed, as one possesses fingers, hair, or interests. No one’s fingers, hair or interest remain the same from birth to death. They all grow and change over one’s lifetime, and can be affected by what experiences we have. Fingers may become strong or weak, may remain healthy or arthritic. Interests certainly grow and change throughout life. So it is with intelligence. Music educators enrich intelligence, but they don’t make it from scratch, and they don’t cause it to be the same in everyone. Through training, a person’s musical intelligence can grow, especially during the early years, but in truth a person applies their native musical intelligences to their learning, and the results are affected in part by the nature of that musical intelligence.


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