from "Writing and Multiple Intelligences," A Working Paper

by Gerald Grow, Ph.D.
School of Journalism, Media & Graphic Arts
Florida A&M University, Tallahassee FL 32307 USA
Available at:


Musical Intelligence

In introducing musical intelligence, Gardner first stands back and identifies its basic core of objective features: rhythm, pitch, harmony, and timbre, but he soon moves closer to dwell on the mysterious emotional power of music. He then presents several kinds of evidence to support his theory that musical ability functions like an intelligence--what composers have called "logical musical thinking" and the "musical mind" (101-2). Musical abilities illustrate why Gardner rejects the simpler split-brain concept of mind. Although most musical abilities are located in the right hemisphere, trained musicians are likely to draw upon the left hemisphere "in solving a task that the novice tackles primarily through the use of right hemisphere mechanisms" (119).

The musical intelligence is more difficult to relate to writing than the others are, especially when you consider that tone of voice is not included in the province of the musical intelligence. But it is no accident that the rhythmic, tonal qualities of words have long been associated with music. Music probably originates in primordial dance, song, and gesture--places where speech and writing may also have deep roots. The earliest poems that we know about appear to have been sung or chanted--perhaps to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. Today, it would be easy assume that clear, straightforward prose was the original method of written expression, and that poetry is an emotional elaboration on prose. The opposite is almost certainly true. The de-poeticizing of prose has been the work of centuries.

Today's emphasis on clear, simple prose floats uneasily upon a sea of older and far deeper styles--the complex cross-currents of poetry, persuasion, and personal song. Some writers find the clean logic of the Strunk and White style overly restrictive. Expressive writing reaches back into the roots of song, tone, dance, and rhythm to draw upon the powerful communicative abilities of what Gardner calls the musical intelligence. I sometimes invent aphorisms to stimulate (and provoke) students; one goes, "You can begin to write better only when you realize that speech is the least recognized of all the forms of music."

The musical intelligence is not limited to poetry and poetic prose. Many writers have celebrated the music of writing.

When I sit down to write, I know that I hear in my head the rhythms of writers I have read and admired. Sometimes, I can even remember which writer's rhythm I am hearing. I think all the good writers hear the music of good writing they've read. (Kuralt 2)

A good piece of writing not only has rhythm (a musical quality), it moves with a larger rhythm of its parts. The parts of the piece fit together; it does not sound odd to describe good prose with musical terms like "counterpoint" and "harmony." Moreover, a complex piece of writing must hold in suspension many disparate elements--a juggling act difficult for the logical mind, but easy in music--and bring these together in a satisfying resolution. It is far from absurd to suggest that these functions in writing may be mediated by the same intelligence that creates and processes music. (In a recent mail-order catalogue, the company attributed a new manager's exceptional ability to coordinate many activities to the fact that he is an amateur musician who thinks of each department as a different section of a symphony orchestra.)

Anyone in search of musical writing will find many examples in Walden, Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey, and Lewis Thomas's Lives of a Cell--to name a few. Infrequently, you can find prose written so much to the inner ear that it virtually becomes a form of music in itself, such as in the final chapter of James Agee's wonderful Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Describing music might be a way to bring the musical intelligence into the writing classroom. I have asked students to compare three recordings of the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Walter makes the movement a soulful choral. Karajan presents it as the planets dancing at a costume ball. In Toscanini's version, the demonic, pulsating energies of the cosmos drive and throb through the piece with a relentlessness that nearly, but not quite, overwhelms a counterbalancing sweetness.

Here is another workshop exercise that can produce dramatic results. Have students write on a given theme close to their experience (memories of early days in school, say). After five minutes, intersperse five minutes of making music, using noisemakers, singing, chanting, or moving to a Caribbean beat. Immediately resume writing for five minutes. Compare the before and after writings, to see what, if any, imprint the musical experience left on the prose.

Send students to observe and talk to several kinds of musicians--composers, jazz improvisers, rock performers, classical pianists, banjo pickers--whoever is available--and compare what they find out about how these people think musically and create music. Talk to non-performers who love music and consider it central to their lives. A few pieces--including a couple of Mozart piano concertos--always seem to be replaying somewhere in my own mind, energizing and shaping the deepest foundations of thought.

Forward to Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence