Musical intelligence: The final frontier?

Musical intelligence: The final frontier?

Potter, Rollin R

For several decades, America’s music educators and teachers have argued for developing and continuing their programs on an array of grounds, all of which were convincing and won approval through community support and dollars. America’s growing educational enterprise developed city, suburban, and rural schools, all of which looked for the right formula to educate youngsters and properly prepare citizens for tomorrow. After World War II, an expanding curriculum resulted in dramatic growth for music programs. School facilities included auditoriums and music complexes; programs in instrumental music and choirs became commonplace and often flourished.

This is not to say that what was achieved came easily. The basics, or what we have long called the “three R’s,” were always the highest priority, yet music offerings found their way into the hearts of most school boards and administrators. Inevitably, some programs were better than others, and all too often quality followed money. Equipment, uniforms, and an amazing list of costly items were provided for students through various funding sources. Parent groups and community organizations stepped forward to make purchases that school boards and tax dollars could not. A blending of budgetary support from school monies and parents was typical and successfully promoted quality instruction. Languages, mathematics, and the sciences led the way in developing the educational community, but music educators, often more tenacious than others, insisted that their programs also be included and developed.

During the past several years much has changed. Reversals in school funding have come to mean that music programs can no longer be sustained. State and city budgets now give priority to citizens’ safety, prisons, and health care. Still intent on saving basics, school boards have opted to reduce funding to music programs; many communities have brought them to extinction. In some regions, classical music patrons are fewer, a result of a citizenry less educated in music. In the midst of this, an argument is gaining momentum that could bring us to the final frontier, and which demands that music educators come together in support of a better rationale for including music in the education of young people.

The argument is one that many have known all along. Psychologists, who have often focused on telling us that some of us were brighter than others and why, now recognize theories of multiple intelligences. Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind ( 1983), Multiple Intelligences (1993), and Creating Minds (1993), argues that individual capabilities exist in at least seven intelligences: linguistic, logicalmathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Gardner, a musician himself, believes that IQ tests are limited in predictions of success and achievement. Describing the IQ view of intelligence as putting individuals through the “eye of a needle,” Gardner argues that his research with young people and adults confirms that individuals possess a wide variety of minds and as many as seven or more intelligences.

Gardner’s argument is gaining support from other psychologists and music educators. At a conference at Ithaca College, Donald A. Hodges from the Institute for Music Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio pointed out that “Music is one of the most powerful outlets for expressing emotions” and is “particularly useful in providing a medium for dealing with complex emotional responses that are primary attributes of humanity.” Charles Elliott, Coordinator of Music Education at the University of Southern Mississippi, believes that “the primary goal of public school music at the elementary level should be to nurture musical intelligence (i.e., the ability to think in sound) and that everything in a child’s musical development depends upon the degree to which that intelligence is developed.”

Educators in the many colleges and universities granting music degrees can support the above argument without hesitation. This is not a self-serving position designed to save face and promote growth. Musical intelligence is assessed frequently in quality undergraduate and graduate programs through requirements that demand development of knowledge and technical proficiency. Additionally, those teachers whose responsibilities include the development of young musicians have long realized that the intelligence associated with musical understanding and excellence in performance does not always relate to superior levels of achievement in other academic areas. Although not all music graduates will pursue successful careers in their fields, those who survive the rigorous training required at many institutions have demonstrated an intelligence that is much different from that of students in other academic areas.

Gardner’s research has opened wide a doorway that educators should perceive to be crucial to understanding the importance of music in society. The nurturing and development that takes place in musical learning is autonomous and yet is on a par with the processes that take place in studying languages, mathematics, and the sciences. That learning will not take place unless we truly understand its importance to the lives of those who have potential for musical intelligence.

Continued study and development of Gardner’s research and argument could definitely be a crucial breakthrough and indeed a final frontier for the performing arts in our society and culture.

Rollin R. Potter is chair of the Department of Music at California State University, Sacramento.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Summer 1997

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