The Intelligence of Music

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

This well-known opening line from “Twelfth Night” is often quoted as the definitive statement about music, yet it is the second line that always rings a chord with me.

“Give me excess of it” and so it goes on “that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die”.

“Without music, life would be a mistake” said Friedrich Nietzsche, which is a little harsh for the hard of hearing, but you understand the sentiment. Life without music would, for me, be a lesser life and whilst there are times when music is just too emotive to be enjoyed, I can’t think of how I could bear life without the joy and bewildering beauty of music.

Recently, we had a business meeting in a pub in the East End of London. As we sat and talked, we were accompanied by the most exquisite sounds of mellow and dramatic Blues. We would start a sentence and then stop, almost instinctively, to listen to an immense guitar riff or a dramatic keyboard opening to another song. On discussing the music with the owner, we found out that he had a stream of music playing from Spotify, based on a compilation from Chess Records.

It was an utter delight to listen to the Hoochie Coochie Man from Muddy Waters or Etta James setting her soul alive as she sang.

As soon as I returned home, I downloaded a list of music from the same site and now regularly listen to this music as I drift off to sleep, or whilst I am writing, as I do so now.

Etta James once more, “I’d rather go blind”

How does music like this hit so hard? How can something be simultaneously heart-wrenching to the point where you want to bury your head in the nearest pillow whilst at the same time enlivening to the point where you want to jump up and raise your hands in the air in thankfulness of what this world has to offer?

For me, this intriguing paradox is the intrinsic value of music, yet it never ceases to amaze me how my spirit can be lifted and burdened simultaneously with the sound of one voice, one song, one guitar, one cello……….

“I was born with music inside me” says Ray Charles. “Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me- like food or water”.

This begs the question as to whether music is part of our instinctual intelligence or whether a love of music or the ability to play a musical instrument can be learned.

Yet it doesn’t stop there. Music involves our physical intelligence, through listening and indeed speaking – with an array of different sounds. It certainly takes us beyond the physical and frequently transports us into a world well beyond the reality of the place where we are listening to it; surely a great example of spiritual intelligence. It can liberate our imagination, can calm our soul and reach out to our very being. Music can unite us. It’s something that we share with our fellow human beings, and it can be something deeply personal that only belongs to us. My taste in music may have parallels with others but it is unique to me alone – part of who I am, what I know about myself, my personal intelligence.

“Music is the movement of sound to reach for the soul for the education of its virtue” – physical intelligence working with spiritual intelligence, working with intellect, and so the cycle continues.

This quote, from Plato.

Howard Gardner, renowned specialist in multiple intelligences, has included musical intelligence as part of his two dimensional intelligence theory. He understands the significance of music and insists that it is an intelligence in itself, based on his criteria for assessing intelligence.

To illustrate this, he sets out his criteria for being musically intelligent.

  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 a musical instrument

So, let’s have a quick look at this. Is this really an intelligence in its own right or is it, as we think, a collaboration between all of the intelligences, working together to create the skill of listening or playing music?

It takes a certain amount of instinct to show sensitivity to patterns and rhythms. As a teacher, you are soon aware of those children who instinctively move to music, or follow a pattern.

Take this clip as an example.

The audience haven’t been primed where to take their collective voices in this clip. They just do it, instinctively. As the man, Bobby McFerrin sidesteps across the stage as though there is an imaginary keyboard underneath him, the audience responds without thinking, without being trained to sing the notes as he steps on their imaginary form. When he jumps a little further to a place where the audience haven’t collectively ‘learned’ the right note, they still all hit the right note, even though they haven’t been told what note to sing.

Quite remarkable, and for us, quite clearly this shows an instinctive element of music.

A person can “learn best” if concepts are either sung or tapped out rhythmically. We would also concur with this but is this intelligence or is it a musical skill that enables some of us to function cognitively? Of course, there are some that are more capable of doing this but it isn’t really an intelligence. It’s a skill, a tool that those with a propensity to understand sound use more readily.

Likewise, the ability to think with music as a background noise, or the ability to concentrate with music playing in the background is a skill, a tool for other functioning. As a classroom teacher, I would often experiment with this, putting calming music on if we were doing some independent work like writing workshops, and yet some of my children found the music irritating and distracting. That didn’t make them any less intelligent. It just meant that it wasn’t the right stimulus for them, or indeed the right music, as if we are aware of our personal tastes, then different people will respond differently to different music.

Whilst we recognise that this is a skill, and that certain people have a more advanced ability to use music, it is somewhat divisive to suggest that those who can’t do this are somehow less intelligent as a whole.

Anyone who has a greater acknowledgement of sounds in the environment is using their senses in a more attuned way. Yes, there is intelligence in this but the real intelligence comes from how these sounds are then used. How does it make us feel when we hear a bird sing or a police siren screech? What can we learn from the passing voices of a couple arguing or loving one another? Why does the sound of a football crowd excite one person and revolt another? Once more we have physical, spiritual, social, personal intelligence all working together with intellect and instinct too regarding how you use this information collectively.

As for playing an instrument, surely Gardner didn’t mean that anyone who doesn’t play an instrument can’t be completely intelligent? Likewise, does it mean that all people who learn a musical instrument are musically intelligent, or does it mean (in some places) that their parents have enough money and an ounce of aspiration to push their child into learning an instrument beyond their desire to do so?

We would advocate that every child should learn to play a musical instrument, or at least have the opportunity to do so regardless of whether they can afford it. Yet playing a musical instrument is a learned skill. It is not an intelligence or even part of intelligence in its own right. It requires dedication, commitment, interest, passion and the actual skills of sliding your fingers across a wooden board or blowing into a hole or a reed or learning how to relax your hands to play louder or softer percussion instruments, and so forth.

All of these criteria combined can certainly make one musically skilful and astute, or more adept at responding to sound, and this is an excellent skill and one that is often undermined in our current education system but it doesn’t take you to that awe-inspiring place that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, where the paradox of musical brilliance can spin your soul, juxtaposing between tears of sorrow and tears of happiness. That is the real brilliance of multiple intelligences in relation to music.

Music is the universal language. It is owned by all of us. It should be “kept live” as the musician union’s slogan says.

Music gives us an opportunity to embrace life and enjoy it. It enables us to communicate when words are insufficient. It lifts us and raises us from one world to another. It can comfort and dismay us.

Leo Tolstoy said “music is the shorthand of emotion”, and whilst we are reluctant to disagree with such a literary giant, we might consider changing the word emotion to “feeling”.

You don’t have to delight in his music to agree with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s comments about music.

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”, he said.

Or maybe it is music that can enable wisdom and philosophy in some? Whatever your take on this, Beethoven is saying something about the fact that music goes beyond knowledge, beyond thought.

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe” – Lao Tzu

For this reason alone, let’s keep music live, and heard by all who have ears to hear and an imagination to feed.


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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4 Responses to The Intelligence of Music

  1. Professions for PEACE says:

    Wonderful post Clare! Very inspiring, and has me reaching for my guitar. Thank you. And the quote by Lao Tzu is incredible. Love it all. Cheers! Gina


    • 3D Eye says:

      Isn’t it a wonderful quote? But then again, if ever I want a little peace of mind, he’s often the one who offers the greatest of wisdoms.
      Yes, I think I ought to reach for my piano. It’s got far too much dust on it these days. And perhaps I ought to do some more singing too! Thanks for the nudge Cx


  2. Mark This says:

    Thanks for this piece. Rhythm and melody for me are built into our experience and can be compared with physical vibration and colour. Without these connections life would indeed be far less of an enjoyment. Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on can usually support me through all sorts of feelings and difficulties. Along with Billie Holiday’s That old devil called love that only leaves space for another six discs on my desert island…………..panic!


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