Musical intelligence can refer to rhythmic or pitch-related abilities, but there is no “music” center of the brain the way that language does. Music is a whole-brain function, which makes musical intelligence complicated. When you sing, for example, your brain might engage aural, verbal, and social areas.
The cooperative nature of music-making is a whole other post.
Take this recent study about a very valuable musical skill, sight-reading. One of the things it suggests is that success on IQ tests is like success at sight-reading–both rely on working memory, your capacity to keep stuff in your brain and use it as long as you need to. Is working memory intelligence? No, indeed. Take my husband (please?), an excellent sight-reader. He’s also great with visual-spatial and mathematical-logical things, and all three of these strengths have been his since he was very young. He also scores high on IQ tests. However, as I have mentioned, he can’t spell worth a damn. And just last week ordered a margarita frozen instead of on the rocks, because it didn’t quite occur to him which one was the name for the kind he likes. It’s very specific, this intelligence stuff.
Arright, so musical intelligence. Edwin Gordon was a pioneer in studying and measuring musical aptitude. One of the controversial assertions he made was that musical aptitude is fixed at age nine. Importantly, he developed a musical aptitude test, which I took while a master’s student. I was a master’s student in conducting at one of the most prestigious schools in the country and I scored right in the middle. Average.
It was completely liberating to learn this. I’ve always loved music, wanted to be a conductor since I was in the eighth grade, but I’ve never been special at it. Oh, I got good grades. I’m good at school work. But I’ve never been the solo singer or the best sight-reader or the fastest analyzer of chords. As a matter of fact, I’m generally slower than everyone around me–people with really low musical intelligence don’t tend to go into music, so my theory is that the average folks like me are actually the weakest in the room full of music students. But it’s okay! I don’t have to be gifted to be good. I just have to know how to use my strengths and make up for my weaknesses.
And that’s how I have become a conductor with average musical intelligence. Work! Yes, indeed, practice makes better. If I were committed and interested, I could exercise and work up to run a ten-minute mile; but, that sounds quite unpleasant to me, so I’m not gonna do that. However, I really love choral music, so I’ll keep my butt in school and practice and work and try to do well. Thousands of hours over the course of decades gradually leads to expertise, regardless of intelligence.
I like to think of my mediocrity as a strength. Having to work hard to learn means that I’ve learned how to learn, and that gives me a wide knowledge base of how to teach. You know that old saying, “those who can do, those who can’t teach?” I think the truer version of that is “those who can do can’t teach.” Because very smart, gifted people never had to learn how to do that they’re good at. If it comes naturally to them, they can’t fathom why other people can’t just do it.
I’m really good at diction. I can pronounce the hell out of anything. Sung diction, IPA, foreign languages, whatever. And now I can teach it because I’ve learned that it’s harder for most people. Other people think singing in English is easier than singing in German. Most of you probably agree. I didn’t understand that until about six years ago. So you see, my intelligence was a kind of stupidity.
And therefore, my mediocre musical intelligence is a strength. Because my work depends on heavily on preparation, I can take all the time I need to get ready–and my awareness of my mediocrity informs me that I’ll have to schedule more time for it than other conductors might.
Musical intelligence is just one type of intelligence among many required for conductors. Being able to hear melodies and harmonies, internalize rhythm with ease certainly makes life easier; and, probably the best conductors in the world will always be the ones with the highest musical and interpersonal intelligences. But the rest of us stand a chance for success because hard-working mediocrity will trump static talent any day of the week.