Do Highly Intelligent People Prefer Instrumental Music?

This story caught me eye (click here for link) — the claim that individuals with high intelligence (presumably measured by an IQ test) prefer instrumental music over vocal music.  And as someone who plays the piano daily and listens to classical music regularly, I initially had a positive feeling about this claim—based on published research.

But some thought has caused me to be very skeptical about the claim. First of all, it makes a big difference whether one is listening to music as background (as I typically do), as opposed to attending a concert where one’s attention is focused on the performance.  If a well regarded vocalist were singing Schubert songs, they would command my full attention; so too, for the Mahler symphonies or song cycles for soloists or orchestras.

Second, this correlational finding doubtless reflects significant social-economic-cultural factors. Those raised in Western intellectual circles in the last century or so will have a bias toward the great symphonists and concerto composers from Europe (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms etc).  But what do we know about those individuals raised in other cultures (India, China, West Africa, Latin America) at different times and in different cultural milieus?  I’d be astonished if we would find the same preferences—less surprised if we found totally different tastes depending on culture and era.

Finally, as the individual who proposed different kinds of intelligences, I’d make a distinction between computational powers (and intelligence) and personal preferences. Example:  There are all kinds of reasons why physicians and scientists might be partial to instrumental music; but that says nothing about their computational powers with music.  Indeed, in one study, Ellen Winner and her colleagues found that humanists are as much involved with music as are mathematicians and scientists—but this finding is less known because it does not fit into cultural stereotypes.

So long live intelligence, however defined, and musical preferences, however measured, but please don’t confound the two.

By Howard Gardner