A New Possibility for Musical Intelligence

Notes by Howard Gardner

According to the criteria that I devised almost 40 years ago, an intelligence is not equivalent to a sensory system (there are no visual or gustatory or tactile intelligences).  Rather, intelligences are best construed as mental computers that operate on information, irrespective of the sensory system (or, technically, transducer), through which the information initially passes. Thus, for example, linguistic intelligence operates on language messages, whether they are heard, read, or (in the case of the blind) perceived through touch.

This criterion has always posed a difficulty for musical intelligence. While there are certainly aspects of music (rhythm, meter, perhaps timbre) that can be accessed through various sensory systems, the key elements (pitch, harmony) are best accessed through the ear.  We can create visual or tactile versions of pitch or harmony but these are, at best, metaphoric.

With respect to music, the situation is changing. Visual patterns that change over time (as in the screen patterns on your computer) capture some of the musical experience (the composer Alexander Scriabin believed that music was by its nature synesthesic—with the various sensory systems being linked to tones, chords, harmonies). Cochlear implants improve hearing to the extent that musical signals become accessible to many who could not previously listen to or enjoy music. And now, as indicated in this essay from the New York Times, through the technology of virtual reality, yet more aspects of the musical experience can be experienced by someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.  As the caption indicates, it’s now possible to explore “what music feels like to a deaf person.”  I believe that in the coming years, the dependence of music on the ability to hear will continue to diminish--even if it does not totally disappear—hence helping many who were once considered disabled and, as a dividend, bolstering one of the tenets of “MI theory.”

Read the full article, originally published online on November 5, 2017, here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/05/insider/how-we-used-vr-to-explore-what-music-feels-like-to-a-deaf-person.html