The Intelligences of Making Music: A Personal Exploration

From an early age, music has been very important in my life. After picking out tunes on a neighbor’s piano, I began to study piano formally when I was barely seven years old; and by the time that I was 12, I was already quite accomplished. At that point, I had to decide whether to work much more diligently (travel for hours to take lessons, practice each day for 3 hours). I decided I did not want to to pursue piano, especially with that much dedication, and I have never regretted that decision. (I would not have liked the life of a professional pianist). Throughout adolescence and into my early adult years, I played the piano quite regularly; also, to make extra money, I offered piano lessons to a few persons.

Then, adulthood intervened. While I still listened regularly to music—mostly classical, but also jazz and “show tunes”, and played the piano when I had some spare moments—I did not practice pieces that I had once mastered, nor did I learn many new ones. So to speak, I was “on hold” for half a century.

Then, about seven years ago , when I turned 70, I returned to more regular practice of the piano—a half hour to an hour each day that I was at home. I played pieces that I had once studied, but also tried to learn new ones. This “change of mind, ear, and hand” occurred for a number of reasons:

  1. As I was moving toward retirement, I had fewer obligations and more time to play and even to practice.
  2. A friend  of mine, a much better pianist, lost the use of one of his arms, and could not play any  longer. I said to myself, “I had better play while I still can.”
  3. I read a book by Alan Rusbridger, a well known journalist, in which he chronicled his efforts to master a difficult Chopin ballade. “Play it again: An amateur against the impossible” served as an unlikely but effective spur.

I’m pleased that I am playing the piano again. I enjoy the respite each day . Especially during the time of COVID-19 and political turmoil in the US and in the rest of the world, I can escape to a different zone of thoughts and feelings. I don’t play well, but at least I am not getting worse.  My wife, family, friends, and neighbors (in our apartment building) don’t seem to mind—and that’s a relief. A lot of time is spent replaying pieces I once knew, and they are easier to play—my fingers remember them, even when I don’t. But I also tackle new pieces, unless they are clearly too difficult. I don’t try to master any of the pieces—I opt for quantity rather than quality.  I could easily write about my current and aspiring repertoire, but that’s for another occasion.

So what, if any,  are the links to the several intelligences?

Clearly, any involvement with music involves various facets of musical intelligence. I am lucky to have been born with a reasonable amount of musical intelligence. (As a child I had perfect pitch, I began by teaching myself how to play, and I quickly mastered the easier repertoire.) I also played the accordion quite fluently (still have my squeeze box), performed on the organ at my temple, and also learned the basics of  flute playing in high school band class.

But like any complex human activity, serious piano playing involves a medley and melding of intelligences. On my analysis, here’s the involvement—or perhaps I should say, “hypothesized involvement”, of several other intelligences:

  • Bodily kinesthetic: I am not at all athletic and never was. (For a possible explanation, see the opening chapters of my memoir, A Synthesizing Mind.) But I have considerable digital dexterity, which I draw on for hours each day at the keyboards at both computer and piano. And as arthritis sets in, I worry about when these two forms of finger exercise will be increasingly challenged.

  • Linguistic: At the very least, one needs linguistic intelligence to read instructions as well as other aspects of musical symbolization, such as performance instructions. In playing program music or in accompanying singing, the words and phrases matter. And I read a good deal about musical history, biography, and performance—and talk about these facets with friends who are involved with music

  • Spatial: In a literal sense, piano playing involves little mastery of space—to be sure, one does not want to fall off the bench or get otherwise disoriented.  But many analysts, including me,  conceptualize musical compositions in spatial terms—as it were, one is navigating a complex space, with themes emerging, switching register, returning in various forms at various points in the aural space. We navigate compositions, just as we navigate neighborhoods or natural spaces. One might consider this a metaphoric use of space. (I should add that, unlike a majority of musicians, I have never thought of compositions as involving actual stories—such as the adventures of people or animals—my engagement is at a more abstract level).

  • The personal intelligences: If one performs with others, or for others, one is certainly dealing with the human dimensions—what I’ve termed interpersonal intelligence. (In the times I have played with others, I have keenly felt the need for skills of empathy and communication.) And even if, like me at the piano, you are basically free of an audience, you yourself are an audience—and one automatically grades oneself on the performance of the day, compared to others by you or by other performers. (These are dimensions of intra-personal intelligence.) Also, as one gets to know specific composers, there is also a conversation with the creators of music—though whether that conversation is completely one-sided is a philosophical puzzle.

So much for the original list of the seven intelligences, as laid out in Frames of Mind, almost 40 years old.   Since then I have speculated about three additional other intelligences, each of which merits brief mention:

  • Naturalist: I defined this as the capacity to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature—among plants, animals etcetera—and/or to draw on these computational capacities in the man- made world—as one scans, discriminates among, and purchases products. Not only do composers often try to riff off of living beings or elements of nature—but the genres of music are a metaphoric extension of the natural world (the seasons, time of day or night, passage of time). As mentioned, I don’t think of compositions as entailing narratives, but I do group compositions in terms of more abstract concepts—what philosopher Susanne Langer labelled “the forms of feeling” which resemble “natural kinds”.

  • Pedagogical: One can be an outstanding musician without being able to teach music to others. And some musicians stand out as teachers, rather than as performers. I’ve taught piano—it is not easy, and I was not a very good instructor. But as with teaching psychology, one can get better—pedagogical intelligence is teachable, learnable.

  • Existential: Not disposed to insert a religious dimension into the world of multiple intelligences, I have used this term to denote an interest in “big, philosophically-nuanced questions”—ones having to do with life, death, love, joy, anguish. Works of music (instrumental as well as vocal) differ enormously with respect to whether they deal with such issues. Similarly, those involved in music differ enormously in the extent to which that involvement is simply fun, enjoyment (advertising jingles, Musak for the dental office), as opposed to wrestling with the largest puzzles and deepest emotions of life (Wagner, Mahler). As someone of a German background, also most deeply involved with German composers, music clearly has an existential dimension for me. And this “beyond the mundane” aspiration may be true especially about classical music and religious music.

So, that’s my checklist for MI and Music. I also have reflections on how these have changed over the span of my life (seven decades at the keyboard), but I’ll save those for another day.

© Howard Gardner 2020

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