Music and Intelligence in the Early Years

Music and Intelligence in the Early Years

by John M. Feierabend, Ph.D.

The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, from Early Childhood Connections, Spring 1995

What a child has heard in his first six years of life cannot be eradicated later. Thus it is too late to begin teaching at school, because a child stores a mass of musical impressions before school age, and if what is bad predominates, then his fate, as far as music is concerned, has been sealed for a lifetime. (1)

Zoltan Kodály delivered these wise words during a speech on Children’s Day in 1951. He spoke many times about the importance of influencing the musical spirit in young people through the introduction of quality musical literature. He was equally concerned that, in addition to quality literature, children experience teachers who demonstrate excellent personal musicianship and provide effective and efficient pedagogy, especially during the earliest years of life.

Kodály’s strong philosophical convictions have more recently been supported by empirical research that has revealed insights about the psychological development of musical thinking. As research continues to clarify the learning process, philosophical concerns about the importance of music to human development also gain support.

The necessity of music in human intellectual development has been discussed as far back as ancient Greece, in the 6th century B.C. In Plato’s Book of Laws II, a discussion is presented between an Athenian student and his teacher, Clinias, that describes the ancient Greek views on the importance of music education.

Athenian: So, by the uneducated man we shall mean one who has no choric training; and by an educated man whose choric training has been thorough.

Clinias: Exactly.

Athenian: And, mark you., the choric art as a whole embraces both dance and song.

Clinias: No doubt.

Athenian: Thus it follows that a well-educated man can both sing well and dance well.

Clinias: So it would seem. (2)

This perception of the educated man is derived from a paradigm often referred to as “The Greek Triangle.” The three primary areas of development which the Greeks believed resulted in a well-educated person included math for the development of a healthy brain, physical education for the development of a healthy body, and music for the development of a healthy sensitivity.

This multi-dimensional model of the educated person would serve well today. Often the primary emphasis in contemporary education concerns the development of a mind which focuses on the “basics” of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even physical development continues to receive a good amount of attention in the natural course of daily play and in the abundance of opportunities for children to participate in sports. Music, however, appearsto be occurring less frequently in the daily lives of families. Music teachers strive to provide effective musical influence, even though there continues to be ever decreasing time allocated to music enrichment. An educational framework that emphasizes mental and physical development while neglecting the musical development of a culture will promote the development of a two dimensional society rather than the three dimensional model proposed by Plato. And as Kodály said, “There is no complete man without music.” (3)


In recent years, the concept of intelligence as multi-dimensional has been promoted by Harvard professor of neurophysiology, Howard Gardner. His landmark book Frames of Mind presents a theory of multiple intelligences (MI Theory) formulated from a review of many years of research. (4)

In that book, Gardner suggests that people do not possess various degrees of one general intelligence but that each individual possesses a portfolio of various intelligences, some greater than others. Through an extensive examination of intelligence-based research, Gardner discovered certain intellectual attributes that appear to function independently of other intellectual attributes. It was from this research that he consequently formulated a theory of seven separate intelligences.


Linguistic intelligence is used to develop language skills. Reading and writing skills develop easily for some, while others struggle to organize their verbal thinking enough to complete a simple essay. Those who excel in linguistic intelligence do well in careers such as journalism, editing, public speaking, acquisition of foreign languages, etc.


This intelligence manifests itself in solving mathematical or logic problems. Individuals who excel in this intelligence are natural candidates as accountants, meeting planners, etc.

Even comparing these two intelligences in ourselves, we are likely to discover strong inclinations toward one or the other mode of thinking. Most universities are interested in the development of these two intelligences when considering a student for admission. Most collegebound students in the United States will take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to assist universities in determining their strengths and weaknesses in math and verbal skills. Rarely does a student score equally on the. math and verbal portions of the SAT. Most discover either that their mathematical intelligence or linguistic intelligence is more developed. But why stop here? Gardner suggests that there are five other intelligences equally demanding of development and deserving of assessment.


This intelligence provides individuals with the ability both to visualize their surroundings and locate themselves in those surroundings. Some individuals are able, with a few scribbles of a pencil, to create a remarkable likeness of objects they see. Some have an uncanny ability to “know where they are” even in relatively unfamiliar surroundings. Those with a high spatial intelligence can find their way and “sense” direction. Those who excel in this intelligence do well as visual artists or navigators. Those who do poorly at remembering where they parked their car or in finding a seldomly visited relative’s home are not unintelligent; however, their spatial intelligence may not be their most developed capability.


Gardner suggests music intelligence-like the other intelligences-is a separate intelligence, equally deserving of development. This is of primary importance to us as music educators. That it is considered a separate intelligence supports the idea that music education is deserving of instructional time-not because of music’s benefits to the other intelligences but rather because of its development as a unique intelligence. Those who excel in music intelligence may or may not seek or receive formal music instruction. Rather, individuals with high music intelligence “think music” with greater clarity and are affected more deeply by music, in an aesthetic sense, than those with less music intelligence.


This intelligence enables an individual to be aware of his/her body as it exists in its own personal space as well as how it functions in general space. Gymnastics, ballet, and basketball are a few areas where persons with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence might excel. Again, the relationship between this and other intelligences is mostly coincidental. Having worked with ballet students for a number of years, I have reflected with amazement how so me dancers could demonstrate such physical co-ordination and yet display very little evidence of the rhythmic or expressive elements simultaneously occurring in the music.


High interpersonal intelligence shows itself in persons who are comfortable dealing with a wide range of personalities. One would hope ministers, counselors, and especially teachers would possess higher than average interpersonal intelligence. Some teachers may be comfortable with a diverse set of personalities in their classrooms. Others find they feel comfortable with only a narrow range of personality types and may even find some student personalities irritating. Persons gifted with a high intelligence in this area are especially effective as mediators and occasionally find themselves in leadership roles, even while such persons may fall short in some of the other areas of intelligence.


The ability to look inward and see one’s self in the way others see us is evidence of high intrapersonal intelligence. Poets and philosophers often have higher than average intrapersonal skills. Individuals who have difficulty understanding that they exhibit unacceptable behaviors would benefit from nurturing their intrapersonal intelligence.

Not one of these intelligences is any less valuable than the others. Some schools interested in exploring the possibilities of this multiple intelligence theory have worked toward developing curricula that include all seven intelligences. The Key School in Indianapolis was a pioneer in exploring the possibilities of this approach. Many other schools in the United States are beginning to explore this concept in designing curricula. (5) At the University of Hartford, construction has begun on a school that will be based on Gardner’s model. Each day all of the children in this school will receive instruction in each of the seven intelligence areas, with additional opportunities for each student to pursue his/her more developed intelligence(s).

Most schools spend much of the school day developing reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, providing adequate nurturing in two of the intelligence areas. Still, the other five intelligence areas remain relatively neglected. Such schools might benefit greatly by an enhanced arts curriculum that would provide opportunities for developing spatial intelligence through visual arts, music intelligence through active music making with the body and voice, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence through dance, and interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences through participation in creative dramatics and role playing.

The lack of concern for developing all intelligence areas is further evident in gifted and talented programs supported by many schools in the United States. Usually a child must excel in either logical-mathematical or linguistic intelligence to be included in such programs. What about those students who excel in one or more of the other five intelligences? Are they any less gifted or talented? These students are equally deserving to receive challenges relevant to their greater intelligence(s) as well as to receive the best possible nurturing of all of their intelligences, including music.


Why does this variability in intelligences exist? Both nature and nurture play significant roles. Nature provides us with varying potentials in the different intelligences, each person with his/her individual portfolio of greater and lesser intelligences. How each intelligence is nurtured during the first years of life will also affect how that intelligence develops within its given possibilities.

For each intelligence to function, a network of neurological fibers must develop which will allow for the processing of specific types of thinking. That network consists of cells, fiber-like extensions from those cells called axons, and still more fibrous extensions from the ends of the axons called dendrites. Each set of dendrites will need to grow close enough to another set of dendrites to allow the electrical impulses of thought to leap from one set of dendrites to another set of dendrites through electrically conducive fluid. These areas of dendritic associations are known as synaptic connections. (see Figure 1).

And when do we produce the greatest density of dendrites and synaptic connections in our neurological network (see Figure 2) Gardner relates:

In human beings the density of synapses increases sharply during the first months of life, reaches a maximum at the ages of one to two (roughly 50% above the adult mean density), declines between the ages of two and sixteen, and remains relatively constant until the age of seventy-two. (6)

And why do we lose some of these connections? Again Gardner states:

Initially, the nervous system produces a great excess of neuronal fibers; a significant portion of the development process involves the pruning, or atrophying of the excessive connections which do not appear to be necessary…

It is a clear example of “use it or lose it.” Let us relate the growing of minds to a vegetable farm which begins with the purchase of seeds to grow seven types of vegetables. Each packet of seeds is acquired from different stores of varying reputation. Some seeds will be of better quality than others. Now let us plant the seeds and nurture them all to the best of our ability. Seeds that begin with greater potential will produce a greater harvest, while those with less potential will not produce as fine a crop. Because of their disparity in quality, the ultimate capacity for these seeds is varied from the beginning. Even though we provide the best nurturing to all the seeds, some plants will naturally do better and some worse-in spite of our efforts. This analogy may explain how our intelligences begin with varying degrees of promise.

Now let us take one of the packets of seeds and nurture those seeds in varying conditions. Those that receive the best of conditions (good soil, good light, and adequate nutrition) later display their full potential. Other seeds which receive less than optimum nurturing do not do as well. Occasionally there will be exceptions. A bird may eat some of the seeds and later drop them in a field where they may receive only random nurturing from the environment. Still, a fine crop may be produced. This is similar to how nature affects the development of our minds. Those individuals who are fortunate to receive optimal nurturing in each of the seven intelligences will have the best opportunities to develop each intelligence to its full potential. While most who receive less than adequate nurturing will not develop to their potential, some left to their own development may prosper in spite of only random nurturing.


In her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can do About It, Jane Healy supports the importance of nurturing the developing neurological network during the early years of life.

The strength and efficiency of synaptic connections determine the speed and power with which your brain functions. The most important news about synapses is that they are formed, strengthened, and maintained by interaction with experience.8

As we learn to use our minds, we process information through certain conditioning. If, for example, we learn music as a logical/mathematical exercise-such as learning to play an instrument through reading, decoding the relationships of symbols, and hence using the instrument to hear music-we establish pathways that will understand music only from this intellectual framework. If, however, the musical mind is engaged in early stimulation through such activities as hearing and responding to music through singing and movement and playing by ear, then we stimulate music intelligence. Stimulating music intelligence appropriately from the earliest experiences is necessary if the pathways are to be built to understand musical phenomena from a musical perspective. An individual who can read a piano score with few errors but cannot express music by ear on the keyboard has learned to use his/her logical/mathematical intelligence rather than his/her music intelligence to understand musical phenomena.

Learning music as a set of facts such as Bach was born in 1685; the lines of the treble clef spell Every Good Boy Does Fine, there are four families of instruments-brass, woodwind, percussion and strings, or there are two sharps in the key of D are examples of learning “about” music through one’s linguistic intelligence. Although such kinds of information are important to know, they are not a substitute for genuinely musical thinking. To develop music intelligence, one must develop neuronal pathways for musical thinking early in life. Then, later learning “about” music will more likely take on “real” musical meaning.

Once the pathways for understanding any phenomenon are established, it is difficult to reshape the mind to perceive that same phenomenon from a different perspective. One might infer that persons who have developed a repertoire of songs and who move comfortably with music have a better chance of learning to engage their ears in learning to read music or to play a musical instrument. In this regard, learning an instrument first by ear and later by reading notation would be more likely to develop both skills successfully. Individuals who learn to play an instrument through reading notation-without appropriate musical readiness skills such as singing and moving with music-engage only their logical/mathematical intelligence and would most likely have later difficulty learning to play by ear. Healy states:

It is much more difficult to reorganize a brain than it is to organize it in the first place. Organization inhibits reorganization. Carving out neuronal tracks for certain types of learning is best accomplished when the synapses for that particular skill are malleable, before they “firm up” around certain types of responses.

Describing exactly what music intelligence is and determining how to measure it have been debated for over a century. Most recently, Edwin Gordon has suggested that music intelligence is determined by one’s ability to “think” music, or in his words to “audiate” music. (10) The better one is in hearing and creating music inside one’s head, the better developed is one’s potential to succeed in real musical understanding and appreciation. Over the last 30 years Gordon has developed music aptitude tests which ask individuals to listen to pairs of musical examples and determine if they are the same or different. In order to make the comparison, one must be able to retain the first musical example in one’s head while the second example is performed. Differences in some of the test items are obvious while other differences are more subtle. By repeatedly administering his tests to students over their years of schooling, Gordon has been able to discover the effects of musical stimulation, and the lack thereof, on the development of the musical mind.

In one of Gordon’s studies, children were administered music aptitude tests every year from age 5 to age 9. In schools where there was little or no music in the curriculum, student scores declined dramatically between age 5 and 6, declined somewhat less between age 6 and 7, and declined slightly between age 7 and 8 and 9. Students were clearly losing their ability to retain music in their heads because of musical deprivation. (11)

Students were also studied repeatedly from age 9 to age 18, this time with very different results. Music aptitude scores remained unchanged regardless of music instruction. Students who studied musical instruments, sang in choirs, and/or pursued additional musical experiences retained music in their heads no better at age 18 than at age 9. Other students who received no music education during the same period also had no change in their music aptitude scores. This does not mean that students who scored poorly could not learn music and increase their musical abilities, only that the ease and clarity with which they were able to acquire musical skills and comprehend music seemed determined by age 9.

Music potential and the development of that potential may parallel the development of an ability to perceive colors. One may see colors with the same intensity in adult life as at age 9. After age 9, one can still visually learn how to appreciate art and do artwork, but one will probably perceive colors in adulthood in much the same manner as at age 9.

In another study, Gordon administered music aptitude tests to students from age 5 to 9 in schools where music instruction began at age 7. Once again, scores declined dramatically between age 5 and 6, and declined somewhat less between age 6 and 7. Then, because of the music instruction that was introduced at age 7, scores went up slightly between the ages of 7 and 8 and 9. Still, because of the greater changes in the early years and the nominal changes in the later years, average scores were significantly lower at age 9 than they were at age 5.

Students were also studied in schools that provided an excellent music program beginning at age 5. In those schools, test scores went up dramatically from age 5 to 6, up somewhat less from age 6 to 7, and up slightly from age 7 to 8 to 9. From this research we can conclude that the most significant effect of music stimulation on musical development appears to be in the first years of schooling. Nevertheless, this does not mean all music programs will develop music intelligence. The type of music instruction is critical. In schools where children learned “about” music instead of “doing” music, average scores declined as if they had had no music at all. Learning “about” music uses logical/ mathematical and/or linguistic intelligences, while singing and moving with music use and develop music intelligence.


Although these studies began assessing children at age 5, it is probable that the decline of music intelligence begins prior to age 5. Knowing that synaptic connections are at their peak production at age 2, that nurturing stimulates synaptic growth in the early years, and that the brain organizes in ways that inhibit later reorganization, we must recognize that music stimulation should begin immediately at birth in order to preserve music intelligence. Because of musical neglect in the early years, most children of school age in the United States are essentially musically retarded. Considering the short time allocated for music instruction, music teachers must do their best to remediate and develop neuronal pathways in brains where the neuronal network has already been fairly well organized.

Many European countries begin kindergarten as a three year program for children aged 3 to 5. The style of their curriculum emphasizes learning through doing and interacting with peers and is one of exploration and stimulation without formal understanding. While many kindergarten classes for 5 year-old children in the United States have similar goals, there are many advantages to developing the minds of 3 and 4 year-old children by placing them in the hands of informed educators during this critical time when the brain is organizing for a lifetime of thinking. This three-year kindergarten model should be considered and adopted for children in the United States. Almost 55 years ago, Kodály presented strong statements about the importance of musical influences and group experiences during this critical age.

Parents seldom take any particular care over the development of the musical sense in a child, and even the most careful and well-endowed parent cannot provide the group music making of the classroom which is so valuable in the initial stages of music development. Moreover, the majority of children are not given the chance to keep their natural healthy sense of music busy and for want of development this instinct becomes torpid. (12)

For decades music education in Hungary has provided an ideal model for the development of the musical mind in the critical years from age 3 to 5. These young students are musically nurtured through children’s songs and games. Children assimilate musical skills from well-trained kindergarten teachers who have themselves been raised in an exemplary music education system and have been required to study music throughout their university training. By contrast, some universities in the United States may offer one course in music for future kindergarten teachers while many other universities offer none. Many kindergarten teachers lack the personal musical development to offer a musically excellent model for their young learners. The United States would do well to look to this European model and provide more thorough training to kindergarten teachers, who will have such a critical influence on our young people. Since so little is being done to prepare the musicianship of kindergarten teachers, administrators and regulators of our educational systems should require that music specialists be employed to provide musical influence in both kindergarten and preschool programs. In the meantime, elementary music specialists should consider offering music classes for parents with preschool children. Many public school music teachers who give instrumental lessons one or two evenings a week might consider allocating some of that teaching time to music classes for parents with preschool children. Such lessons would have an important long-term effect on the musical development of those children.

Kindergarten music may be one of the first programs to be eliminated as budget cuts continue to trim music education programs. Given the research findings presented above, informed administrators should look for financial savings elsewhere in the music program, perhaps upper elementary school. In sixth grade you can teach another song or develop another social/musical insight, but in kindergarten you can change children’s lives!

In summary, too much information is now available to continue to neglect the overall growth of our future citizens. All seven intelligences deserve to be developed. Early intervention is essential if we are going to preserve mental functions and develop neuronal pathways to optimize the use of all of our intelligences. Musical influence through “doing music” in the early years will have the greatest impact on the development of music intelligence and future musical understanding. In good conscience, we must do more to nurture our future citizens with the insights gained from research of the recent past.


  1. Helga Szabó, The Kodály Concept of Music Education. Booklet accompanying Record Numbers SBHED 0001-0003. (London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1969).
  2. Plato, Book of Laws II.
  3. Zoltan Kodály, lecture, December 3, 1940, “Music in the Kindergarten.” (Reprinted in The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, pp. 127-151, London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1974)
  4. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind, (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
  5. Howard Gardner, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1993).
  6. Gardner, Frames of Mind, 44-45.
  7. Gardner, Frames of Mind, 43.
  8. Jane M. Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can do About It (New York: Touchstone, 1990) 52.
  9. Healy, 53.
  10. Edwin Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns (Chicago: G.I.A., 1990).
  11. Edwin Gordon, The Nature, Description, Measurement and Evaluation of Music Aptitude (Chicago: G.I.A., 1987).
  12. Kodály, 1941.