• Rosangel Perez

Musical Ability & Intelligence: How much do they determine?

By: Rosangel Perez


Up to the present day, there are still differences of opinion regarding what musical ability means. Some have a more deterministic perspective, thinking that either one is born with it, or one is not. Others have a more optimistic perspective, claiming that everyone has it and what causes a change is how much nurture they receive later. Lastly, there are those who think it is a combination of nature and nurture. Musical ability is often used as a synonym for musical talent.

When considering the views mentioned above, I lean toward rejecting the more deterministic perspective because this one mentions the possibility of not being born with any musical ability at all. Although the levels of musical ability may vary from individual to individual, everyone possesses some degree of musical ability. “There are no completely unmusical people, just as there are no totally unintelligent people (Gordon, 1987)”. This assumption is also supported by Gardner’s 8 Frames of Mind, which includes Musical Intelligence as one of the 8 intelligences. Gardner claims that all humans possess all intelligences in varying amounts, and those multiple intelligences can be nurtured and strengthened, or ignored and weakened. Some of the components that make music an intelligence include pitch, rhythm, timbre and tone. Children’s musical intelligence manifests in their ability to recognize and create the mentioned above. They also have a knack for recognizing patterns. Children with a high level of musical intelligence might learn more easily through the use of songs (lyrics and melody) and rhymes.

The varying levels of musical ability are affected by a myriad of factors that can fall under two categories: nature and nurture. Furthermore, musical achievement can be fuelled by non-intellectual qualities, such as personality (Parncutt & McPherson, p.4). The play of personality into musical achievement highlights the role of genetics. The development of personality parallels the development of musical ability and achievement.

Another component of musical development is motivation. A child’s intrinsic motivation directly impacts their relationship with music, and the parents’ reaction to this intrinsic motivation (whether they nurture or redirect) can permanently influence the child’s involvement with music (Parncutt & McPherson, p.9). Therefore, high innate musical ability does not always yield high musical achievement. A child with less innate musical ability might be more successful if the environment around them nurtures the music ability and interest on their part.

Several professionals have created tests to measure musical ability from an early age. Carl Seashore published the first version of his Measures of Musical Talents in 1919. In his tests, he measured pitch, loudness, time, and timbre. His test consisted of acoustic sounds, not music. “The theory behind these tests was that better hearing implied higher levels of musical talent (Parncutt & McPherson, p.5)”. A common criticism of his tests is that he did not separate the predictors and just looked at the results all together. Additionally, Henry Mursell made the point that it is important to look at musical context when creating a measurement of musical ability, suggesting a music-specific musical ability test. Another downfall of these tests is that they included chord analysis, which is not innate, thus compromising the validity of the test.

Gordon, on the other hand, did consider a musical context when creating his music aptitude tests. He had different versions for different age groups, and there was an emphasis on the aural discrimination component. He later changed the name of his theory to Developmental Music Aptitude because he believed that we are all born with a certain amount of aptitude, and whether it stays or goes away depends on how it is nurtured. He introduced the concept of “audiation”, which is related to hearing a sound when it is not physically present. The Gordon tests are still widely used when determining placement for a music student. Gordon tried to make his tests as valid as possible by removing advantages students with musical training could have had. For example, when testing improvisation on the piano, he used a nerf ball so that students who had taken piano lessons would not have an advantage. However, this only limited their physical ability to play the notes, but their audiation/pre-hearing of the notes they would play on their improvisation could have been influenced by their previous experiences with the instrument.

Overall, I think these tests are valuable when determining which instrument a student might be better suited for. However, these tests can be harmful in elitist societies, taking a “take the best and shoot the rest” approach to music education. Considering that musical intelligence is one of Gardner’s 8 intelligences, why should it not be nurtured? We prioritize Linguistic and Logical/Mathematical intelligences. We do not stop teaching math and reading to students because they might not have a high aptitude for it. Research does show a positive correlation between a student’s musical achievement and the musical nurturing they receive. If anything can be concluded from these studies and measurements is that increased access to music education will be a step toward valuing students’ individual learning styles and intelligences, thus increasing their chances for success.


© Rosangel Perez, 2022