Musical Learning and Intelligence

I recently purchased an iPad – an amazing piece of equipment that excites the creative mind.

3Di has mentioned Gordon Dryden & Jeanette Vos’s “New Learning Revolution” many times, and also the fact that schools in China have adopted their ideas and invested considerably in new technology to enable individual learning.

The iPad is exactly the kind of equipment that enables this freedom of learning. (Other brands of tablet computer are available!) You can do almost anything on this machine, and it is, for me, almost impossible to put down at present.

What I am particularly enjoying is the exploration. I am neither a Luddite nor a computer genius; somewhere in between – probably like many. I do not know how to design a programme. I can merely adapt one that has been set for me. There is a template or a guideline and I follow it, often hitting the ‘help’ button to give me a few useful tips.

This ‘help’ is my teacher. It facilitates my learning, but no matter how much advice is provided, I need to do it for myself in order to learn.

We are moving from formal teaching to this more adaptable and individual type of learning, and the possibilities and potential for creative, free-thinking individuals are extremely exciting.

Teaching is changing?

Teaching and learning is a fascinating subject. There is no one rule. Individuals learn in different ways. We all know that – yet our schooling is so frequently prescribed in a manner that is more manageable for the teacher than adaptable for the needs of the individual pupil.

The way I was taught music is a classic example of this.

According to Howard Gardner, I am musically intelligent. I can play the cello and the piano, having learned the process over a number of years. I can compose music with a stave, a pencil and some knowledge of augmented chords. I understand musical patterns, and can even syncopate when playing and composing. I “show” sensitivity to rhythm, melody and sound. I love listening to music and am frequently reduced to tears by the brilliance of others through their compositions or performance.

Yet I would not classify myself as musically intelligent since I do not think such an intelligence exists.

Gardner’s notion of musical intelligence, in our opinion, is ‘process based’ rather than embracing all six intelligences. It is about learning and understanding rather than appreciating and experiencing. It is following a format laid out by others rather than raw creativity, intuition and feeling.

So what is the difference between Gardner’s interpretation of musical intelligence and what I would call being musically appreciative and capable?

As a young girl, I was given a piano. I was sent off to weekly lessons and over a number of years I practiced and refined my skills until I finally achieved a Grade 8; at the time, equivalent to an A-Level. I simultaneously learned the theory of music and worked out how to compose complicated chords in a structured format that complied with the standards laid out by Trinity College, London’s examination board.

It was all done by rote; an extension of learning the multiplication table.

I had an excellent teacher. She supported me, enabled me and taught me exactly how to play the piano, and I thoroughly appreciate what she did for me. I owe her an enormous amount. The delight of being placed in front of a piece of music and being able to hammer out a melody is a wonderful skill, and I cannot imagine living without the ability to place my hands on a keyboard and create a tune.

I learned how to do this – intellect.

And this intellect, over a number of years becomes instinctive. Sit me in front of a piano and I will instinctively shape my hand to designated chords without even thinking about what I am doing.

But that is not enough.

If there was only this learning, what would be the point? Where would the appreciation be?

Physically, I use my senses. I listen to the duff notes and amend. I temper my touch to get different sounds.

But this is not enough either.

I play the piano for my own enjoyment. It is my creativity, albeit confined to interpreting other peoples’ compositions, but I stamp my own personality on the music with the way I use the music as a guide rather than an absolute.

In times gone by, I have played music for the enjoyment of others. I have accompanied children singing or playing instruments. I have entertained at parties at home. I have sung solos and been part of musical groups – all this is personal and social intelligence; knowing yourself and your likes and appreciating the enjoyment for others, and gaining personal satisfaction in pleasing others.

But that is not enough either.

However wonderful it is to explore your own creativity and imagination, as much as it is wonderful to see others gaining enjoyment from your play, the whole point of music for me is that it enlivens you. It makes you think. It reaches to the soul and nurtures a feeling within.

Music is life-giving. It transcends mere understanding. It transports you to places that are unimaginable.

It is spiritual.

For me, music is an amalgamation of the intelligences working together, and is a classic example of how we operate as multi-intelligent beings.

I am fortunate. I have been given the opportunity to learn the structures of playing music, following a score, understanding the key signs and notes and bringing them to life, but none of this is purposeful without the social, emotional, personal and spiritual intelligences.

And all of this is possible without formal learning or being able to read a single note of music on a sheet.

One can be musically “intelligent” through self-learning about music, by listening, appreciating, sharing with others, identifying your particular favourite genre.

This is intelligence. This is multiple intelligences working with music.

So, I am a grade 8 pianist. I can play a piece of music that somebody somewhere has ‘levelled’ to be of a certain skill level to assign a number of attainment to it, and I am proud that I have reached this level of ability.

But it does not make me a musician, and it does not make me musically intelligent.

It just means that at the age of 17, I passed an exam that showed the world that at one point in my life I could play the piano relatively well.

But this qualification gave no indication to the outside world of how I felt about music, what I appreciated, what type of music I liked listening to, how I shared my love of music with others, how I listened and felt – all the aspects of using music intelligently.

What I cannot do is play music very well without having sheet music in front of me. My improvisation skills are sadly lacking. My musical instinct has been somewhat stifled by the structured process of learning how to play the piano. Admittedly, I have some basic knowledge which means I can tap out a melody fairly easily. But putting the right chords with this in an innovative way is an instinctual thing – which I cannot do.

Which brings me back to my iPad.

It has opened another musical door for me, and in the short amount of time that I have had this machine I have learned to compose something that is remotely akin to what I want to produce for the first time in my life.

I now feel like a musician, albeit a pseudo and naïve one.

My iPad, along with its GarageBand “App”, has enabled me to create eight bars of relatively decent E minor Blues.

Jamming with iPads

I started with a melody and then added guitar, percussion, strings and drums. I then tried to add the bass sound. Realising that, for me, this was not the best approach, I deleted the entire composition, and started again – this time using the bass guitar as the starting point and building up from there.

And I am really excited!

It is not the best piece of music in the world but it is mine. Admittedly, it has helped having a basic understanding of musical structure, knowing that A, B and G chords don’t really go together in a small piece of music, but by using your senses and knowing what sounds good and what makes you feel good, you can work this out for yourself. You don’t need formal musical lessons to do this, but they may help.

I feel as though I have had an awakening, and the sad thing is that I have known that I have had some untapped ability to compose for some time but I was so tied to the formal process of reading music that I have felt fearful of moving away from it.

Too often we hear of children and young people studying for exams and not having time to explore their other interests. There are a prescribed number of books for A-Level English, and having to memorise passages to quote in exam conditions means that there is little time to explore other great literature, which in reality would be far more beneficial than knowing the exact words spoken by Heathcliff when his Cathy dies.

Too often, we sit children in front of music without enabling them to explore their own personality and style through their instrument of choice.

It is not an either/or situation. The two can be done simultaneously.

If you are studying “1984”, then it is a good idea to read “Animal Farm” and “Homage to Catalonia” at the same time, to get some understanding and appreciation of the genius that is George Orwell. But is equally viable to spend time reading Paul Coelho or Zadie Smith, but there isn’t enough time.

If you are studying Beethoven’s “Midnight Sonata” it is a good idea to learn some of his other compositions simultaneously, and listening or playing a bit of improvised Blues is not going to detract from the study of the German master.

My musical “intelligence”, my ability to play music was stymied by the need to play in a certain form to pass an exam. Now, I want to break free and learn how to improvise. I will need a teacher, an enabler, to do this – but they will facilitate the learning that I do, not instruct to the point of me merely replicating their style, their skills.

I look forward with huge anticipation to having both a human teacher and also the ‘help’ button on the computer to facilitate my new skills in musical composition, and to developing each of the intelligences simultaneously to ensure that my love of music gives me, and others, the greatest satisfaction and enjoyment.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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2 Responses to Musical Learning and Intelligence

  1. brennagee says:

    Feeling music, literature or art is so much more profound and long lasting than learning it for practical purposes. I think our world would be much more satisfied and content if we emphasized feeling and intuition while learning/teaching.
    It’s wonderful that you understand music composition, bravo! It’s bliss feeling the music as it streams from your instrument.:)


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thank you for your comments once more. You are absolutely correct – we are sure that our world would be much calmer if people were enabled to learn through feeling and intuition as well.

      There is nothing like that feeling of wonderment when you get a musical instrument to “sing”. Though, I would argue that I get the same sense of satisfaction from completing a piece of writing too.


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