Teaching Students Who Have Musical Intelligence

What It Means and Famous People Who Have It

Musician writing music in a studio
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Musical intelligence is one of Howard Gardner's nine multiple intelligences which were outlined in his seminal work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983). Gradner argued that intelligence is not a single academic capacity of an individual, but rather a combination of nine different kinds of intelligences.

Musical intelligence is dedicated to how skillful an individual is performing, composing, and appreciating music and musical patterns. People who excel in this intelligence typically are able to use rhythms and patterns to assist in learning. Not surprisingly, musicians, composers, band directors, disc jockeys and music critics are among those that Gardner sees as having high musical intelligence.

Encouraging students to enhance their musical intelligence means using the arts (music, art, theatre, dance) to develop students' skills and understanding within and across disciplines.

There are, however, some researchers who feel that musical intelligence should be viewed not as an intelligence but viewed instead as a talent. They argue that by musical intelligence is categorized as a talent because it does not have to change to meet life demands.


Yehudi Menuhin, a 20th-century American violinist and conductor, began attending San Francisco Orchestra concerts at age 3. "The sound of Loiuis Persinger's violin so entranced the young child that he insisted on a violin for his birthday and Louis Persinger as his teacher. He got both," Gardner, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, explains in his 2006 book, "Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice." "By the time he was ten years old, Menuhin was an international performer."

Menuhin's "rapid progress on (the violin) suggests that he was biologically prepared in some way for a life in music," Gardner says. "Menuhin his one example of evidence from child prodigies that support the claim that there is a biological link to a particular intelligence"—in this case, musical intelligence.

Famous People Who Have Musical Intelligence

There are plenty of other examples of famous musicians and composers with high musical intelligence.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Perhaps history's greatest composer, Beethoven composed many of his best works after he had gone deaf. He said he imagined the notes -- of all the many instruments in an orchestra -- in his head.
  • Michael Jackson: The late pop singer enthralled millions with his sense of rhythm, musical ability and seeming ability to defy the laws of physics in his dance moves.
  • Eminem: A contemporary rapper, who displayed his extraordinary creative skills in his records and such films as "8 Mile." 
  • Itzhak Perlman: An Israeli-American violinist, conductor and teacher, Perlman appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" twice, the first time when he was just 13, and made his debut at Carnegie Hall when he was 18.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Another of history's greatest composers -- and a contemporary of Beethoven -- Mozart was the very definition of a child prodigy, showing incredible musical intelligence at a very early age. Liberace was also a child prodigy. He began playing piano at age 4.

Enhancing Musical Intelligence

Students with this type of intelligence can bring a range of skill sets into the classroom, including rhythm and an appreciation of patterns. Gardner also claimed that musical intelligence was "parallel to linguistic (language) intelligence."

Those with high musical intelligence learn well by using rhythm or music, enjoy listening to and/or creating music, enjoy rhythmic poetry and may study better with music in the background. As a teacher, you can enhance and strengthen the musical intelligence of your students by:

  • Including music in lessons where appropriate
  • Allowing them to include music for independent projects
  • Connecting music to a lesson, such as talking about what music was popular during historical periods
  • Using songs to help students study for exams
  • Playing Mozart or Beethoven as students study in class

Studies show that listening to classical music benefits the brain, sleep patterns, the immune system and stress levels in students, according to the University of Southern California. 

Gardner's Concerns 

Gardner himself has admitted that he is uncomfortable with the labeling of students as having one intelligence or another. He offers three recommendations for educators who would like to use multiple intelligence theory to address the needs of their students:

  1. Differentiate and individualize instruction for each student,
  2. Teach in multiple modalities (audio, visual, kinesthetic, etc) in order to "pluralize" the teaching, 
  3. Recognize that learning styles and multiple intelligences are not equal or interchangeable terms. 

Good educators already practice these recommendations, and many use Garner's multiple intelligences as a way to look at the whole student rather than focus one or two particular skills.

Regardless, having a student(s) with musical intelligence in a class can mean a teacher will intentionally increase music of all kinds in the classroom...and that will make for a pleasant classroom environment for all!

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Kelly, Melissa. "Teaching Students Who Have Musical Intelligence." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/musical-intelligence-profile-8095. Kelly, Melissa. (2021, September 8). Teaching Students Who Have Musical Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/musical-intelligence-profile-8095 Kelly, Melissa. "Teaching Students Who Have Musical Intelligence." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/musical-intelligence-profile-8095 (accessed June 1, 2023).