A Theory of Musicality as it Correlates to General Intelligence

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The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a remarkable, rather sudden burst of psychological research activities centering around predictive measurement of human mental function and potential. Until late in the 1800s, psychology had not yet become an independent, autonomous science based on controlled experimentation, observation, and analysis, but rather remained an area shrouded and subsumed within the parameters of generic philosophy. Although the current-day fields of psychological experimentation are many—ranging in subject from abnormal and developmental psychology to areas as seemingly remote as educational and social psychology—the one basic and foremost concern of all who work in the various facets is how the brain functions as that part of a human being that knows, perceives, thinks, understands, wishes, and chooses. These functions are essentially the powers and processes of the mind as it governs human activity within the given environment.

It is generally agreed that the first landmark of significance to predictive psychology as it emerged in the twentieth century was the cooperative effort of Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon which produced the first modern so-called intelligence test in 1905. The later revisions of this test in 1937 and 1960 by Louis Terman and Maude Merrill, resident psychologists at Stanford University, were labeled the Stanford-Binet Tests. Early in the pioneering endeavors of Binet and Simon, the historically significant concept of measuring "mental age" was presented and initially developed.

In respect to efforts aimed at the measurement of general intelligence, or the purported measurement of it, much research and development continue to pour forth, and controversies continue to arise. Paramount concern since the 1960s, for example, has centered around the belief of many psychologists that the past and present environment play a crucial role in determining composite scores obtained on intelligence tests, and that heredity alone is not the determining factor in setting potential boundaries for human intelligence. This belief has long been suspicioned and voiced, but until such programs as Head Start, which aimed to enrich educational and cultural exposure to America's disadvantaged youth (primarily those of minority groups), little documentation to support it could be mustered. Investigators found that through such programs, composite intelligence scores could be increased by as much as fifteen percent. Now, however, an intense controversy ensues over the argument as to whether or not such gains are long-lasting or merely transitory. As yet, a conclusive answer has not been formulated and presented to the education community.

Be this as it may, the development of psychology as a science naturally excited the interests of those in numerous specific fields of knowledge, including music, as they sought to tie down and document connections amongst mind, behavior, and the particular discipline at hand. Although, according to Roger Phelps, the psychology of music "includes a vast amount of literature in aesthetics, acoustics, measurement, performance, and therapy,"1 the present discussion will center around the topics of the predictive measurement of musicality and the relationship of musicality to general intelligence.

The latter topic is of special interest inasmuch as research-established correlations between musicality and general intelligence historically have been weak or nearly negligible, as a survey of experimental research data points out.2 Yet, observation analysis compels us to at least strongly suspect that those who have achieved outstanding musical success possess not only musical ability but also a large measure of general intelligence to the degree that they could have achieved success in other life endeavors. Observation analysis leads us to suspect further that musicality goes hand in hand with general linguistic, artistic, and mathematical abilities, all of which are traditionally and integrally associated with general intelligence. Let us recall at this point the fact that general intelligence tests typically include exercises involving word and numerical relationships, recall, and reasoning.

In 1934, James Mursell, in his book entitled Human Values in Music Education, first described a viable but as yet unheeded "musicality-general intelligence" theory before the American music education profession. As a basis for his speculation he cited studies of correlation carried out in Germany early in the century by Ostwald Feis, Richard Miller, the Pannenborgs, and H. Schussler.3

Unfortunately, the scientific experimentation needed to conclusively substantiate or repudiate the reported theory has never been carried forth in this country, since the adopted instruments for attempting to measure musicality have for the most part been instruments predicated on the assumption that musicality is best predicted by isolating and measuring sets of discrete sensory capacities—that is, the sense of pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc.—through exercises involving abstract tonal patterns sounded by various means. In this light, experimentation and test development have led us down a dead-end path so far as establishing convincing, positive correlations between musicality and general intelligence; but even more important, they have motivated and nourished a considerable disagreement as to what musicality is all about and what its constituent elements are. The net result has been a dramatic decline in interest in aptitude testing,4 even though most of us would heartily agree that the task of identifying the talented youngster early is indeed still a worthy one.

In 1939, two years after publication of his monumental book, The Psychology of Music, Mursell defined more clearly his initial theory in an article entitled "Intelligence and Musicality."5 Building from hypotheses underlying still further research then completed by European and Russian scholars, he stated that musicality must be considered primarily a phenomenon of human behavior. The logical but at that time startling conclusion to be drawn from this was that predictive measurement of musicality can best be made when behavior in regards to music is observed and objectively analyzed. According to Mursell, there must be assessment of student interest as well as assessment of the type and degree of participation in musical activities. Moreover, the behavior must be evaluated meticulously for quality by designated competent judges.

By using these criteria as bases for measuring musicality and predictive musical potential rather than taking measures of isolated sets of discrete sensory capacities, Mursell stressed that the studies conducted by researchers elsewhere consistently indicated a close and important relationship between musicality and general intelligence, that all-around talent usually includes musical talent, and that persons who possess higher musical talent also usually possess higher general ability.6 Certainly these findings are thought provoking and lead one to question why scholars in this country did not produce substantial research from a similar point of view.

To find the answer to this, it is necessary to review some of the prodigious work of Carl Seashore and to evaluate the remarkable and profound influence of his pioneering efforts on the American movement to measure musical aptitude. Adopting a belief that musicality is inborn and therefore fixed, Seashore published his Measures of Musical Talents in 1919 after a number of years of experimentation.7 Through controlled tonal situations involving immediate tonal or rhythmic memory, the subject's ability or capacity to hear pitch, intensity, time, rhythm, and consonance was respectively measured. A high degree of sensitivity to these isolates was considered indispensable within the musical-mental hierarchy as conceived by Seashore and described later in his book The Psychology of Music. Through "internal validation" he purported to measure strictly the six separate capacities involved, and he insisted that the results should never be presented as a single composite so-called musical IQ score, though many others have expressed the desire to produce such a score either with Seashore's or other measures later developed.8

So convincing was the case made for Seashore's Measures and so willing to accept the underlying hypothesis was the American public, that for an entire decade it was the only major music aptitude test produced and widely used in the country. From 1930 through 1955, however, seven other tests were developed, some of which were processed through several revisions. Curiously, another void of a full decade occurred in test production, and finally in 1965 and 1966, two more were produced.9 It is safe to say that presently the intense period of interest and activity seems to be on the wane, at least for the moment.

With Seashore's Measures certain basic procedures about testing musicality were firmly established and deemed relevant, and to a large extent these have not been violated nor challenged by a counter movement of major consequence during the flurry and decline of activity in test construction that followed. They undergird, to a variable (but decisive) degree, nearly the entire succession of tests. These procedures center around the belief that musicality can be assessed through testing activities that attempt to measure selected and discrete sensory perceptions and capacities, to test the individual's taste or discrimination in regard to paired tonal or rhythmic formations, or to test immediate memory recall in coping with examples of exceedingly short time duration.10

We might conclude that the subjects undergoing evaluation are musically passive rather than musically active in the generally accepted sense that musical performance, listening analytically to fully developed compositions, and creating original compositions through the manipulation of the elements are not involved. While it is true, of course, that all tests take only sample measures which through validation processes are indicative of more global aptitude or achievement, the behaviors elicited on these tests are particularly limited and restricted in the light of the full realm of possible musical activities associated with and implicit to the art.

Perhaps most important, however, are two additional points which indicate basic, almost philosophical, beliefs about measuring musicality. The first of these is that given a workable, somewhat generalized definition of "music" that does not lead us off into an extensive debate of aesthetic principles and values—that music is the art of putting together beautiful, attractive sounds in arrangements, structures, or designs that are logical, substantive, and sensuously fulfilling—these tests were constructed upon the belief that musicality can be tested and measured through tonal and rhythmic signals that do not meet the definition just stated. Even where tonal configurations are used, their time duration is so exceedingly short and their musical substance or content so meager, that they could not really be classified as pieces of music.

Through measuring musicality in this fashion, certain higher order mental processes required of all successful musicians were discarded, namely, the ability to comprehend complex abstract tonal designs; to mentally synthesize relationships between unlike elements in a given extended context; to recognize possibilities for expressive and dramatic profundity as these accrue and relate to each other within a work; to detect and project musical metamorphoses and transformations; to transfer the learned from one musical situation to the next; and, at any given moment in an extended context, to remember, to be aware of, and to anticipate so that the inner logic of a total structure is maintained and fully realized. Certainly such processes are indispensable and crucial to all significant musical behavior.

The second important point is that since the designed tests were limited in the number of considered factors for measuring the musical mind, it seemed logical for many to conclude that mature musical ability develops from highly specialized, inborn gifts or talents. Although such a conclusion has been aired in one way or another for hundreds of years by various spokesmen, there is no empirical basis to substantiate it. The newer scientific approach of the music psychologist, the collected data, the scientific experimentation, and the university laboratory setting, however, rekindled and gave an almost mystical and highly intellectualized credence rendering the belief more palatable. As mentioned earlier, the evidence indicates presently a growing disinterest in music aptitude testing and test construction. Interestingly, however, the belief that there is an inborn specialized talent for music lives on and is probably as widespread and strongly held as ever. Indeed, it is shared and voiced by many outside the profession. Unfortunately, in educational settings this belief can become the basis for argument to withdraw musical training from all who do not possess or give obvious indication that they have this special talent. The next step, of course, would be to withdraw training from those who do possess it inasmuch as they constitute such a small number of the total population that the expenditure of funds seems unwarranted in the light of other more pressing services that instead could be offered to the majority. Truly there is much to be lost by publicly endorsing such a position, especially when we consider the many benefits music can bring to the lives and education of all human beings, whether or not they happen to exhibit or be capable of meritorious musical behavior.

Truth, however, must be sought out in all educational matters; and it seems appropriate at this point to turn our attention to the possibility of another approach to explaining musicality and its relationship to general intelligence. First of all, it is important to establish the fact that music is basically an art which employs in any given composition a number of tonal patterns or designs of various time dimensions. Even though these patterns may be superimposed, juxtaposed, or contrasted with each other in a given selection, they relate to each other and to the work as a whole, so as to produce a sense of logic, anxiety and tension, movement toward specific points of arrival, and finally a feeling of release and fulfillment. Recognition of this fact and making use of it for study and communication purposes is central to all music education, be it in the ensemble rehearsal, the private applied lesson, or the methodology and appreciation class.

Once accepted, we are led to the inescapable conclusion that musical behavior essentially means that one can comprehend and discriminate these patterns and designs, even though their media are tonal rather than verbal or numerical and their setting temporal rather than spatial. Moreover, the degree to which one can comprehend and discriminate these patterns and designs and use them toward reaching desired musical goals is essentially the degree to which one exhibits musicality—no more, no less. This means that for many students comprehension of short compositions, perhaps even comprehension that rests primarily within the subconscious mind, constitutes the musical potential. The vast majority will be able to exceed this minimal level by far, and a few may possess the capability for soaring to the creative or performance heights reached by the greatest of musical giants. It does not follow, however, that those of us in the teaching profession can readily assess potentially which are which, for some students possess seemingly excellent capabilities for ultimate success in music and yet turn their creative outpourings elsewhere. We must therefore conclude that musicality or musical potential as defined is not enough. The individual must provide more—interest, will, energy, imagination, and sensitivity—and these must all be utilized fully and effectively in carrying out musical behavior. Even then, environmental circumstances must be conducive to nurture.

If one were to formulate a workable definition of "general intelligence," the product might look strikingly similar to the definition of musicality just presented. Recalling again the fact that intelligence tests typically assess an individual's ability to cope with word and numerical relationships, to recall, and to reason, we may proceed with the generalization that intelligence is the ability to perceive patterns within presented data and to formulate interrelationships so that action toward desired and positive goals is achieved. We could thus logically hypothesize on this basis that musicality is a particular manifestation of general intelligence utilizing tonal rather than verbal or numerical data as the bases for action, and that the performance, the created musical composition, or the learning and appreciation brought about by analytical listening constitute the desired musical goals.

In developing this same point of view in a different manner James Mursell wrote:

Consider the whole range of living creatures, all the way from the paramecium to the genius. In what essential respect do they differ? They differ fundamentally in the ability to deal with structure, in power of mental organization. At the lowest level, about all that we have is a power to tell the difference between two things and to respond differently to them. . . . As we go up the scale, this capacity to deal with structure becomes more and more comprehensive and complex . . . Musical ability is simply the ability to deal with structure embodied in tone. In this respect it is precisely analogous to every other kind of mental ability.11

If this theory is accepted, then it follows that musical behavior primarily involves calling to action the most central and basic function of the human mind, rather than calling forth a particular segment or subdivision which embodies only certain senses or which utilizes some special activity, power, or talent as separated from the central function. Simply put, the mind works as a whole rather than by fragmented compartments. This, of course, denies the concept of special inborn musical abilities, powers, and talents, for these are essentially "faculties." Faculty psychology comes to us from the prescientific era and has long been discredited universally. Acceptance of the theory additionally means, according to Mursell, "that executive, or artistic, or musical, or military, or mathematical, or literary activity is not the outcome of a single part of division of the mind but of the entire personality, functioning in a certain direction."12 And finally, acceptance means that the so-called talents for such specific activities are not inborn as isolates, but instead are abilities which accrue as products of general intelligence and a number of learned, environmental, and even physical variables cooperatively at work, not the least important of which is individualistic preference, will, and interest.

There can be no doubt that the individual who does not possess basically good normal hearing, who cannot distinguish half and whole steps, or who cannot discriminate accurately amongst the other fundamental elements utilized, will not do very well in musical endeavors.13 But the primary requisite for successful musical behavior, however, lies elsewhere. Hearing within the normal range is probably quite good enough for even excellent achievement.

It is unfortunate that in considering this point we frequently forget about the vast range of human musical behavior that falls within the marginal, average, and above average categories and conjure up immediately visions of the "musical genius," whose musical behavior stands in such striking contrast to that of his fellowmen. First of all, careful analysis would lead us to concede that given the obvious outstanding sensory capacities he elicits for musical behavior, there is, over and above, a commanding general intelligence which renders it unnecessary for us to place such a limitation on his description. In a word, he displays unusual and superior mental ability. Secondly, by focusing our attention on such rare individuals as we conceive theories concerning basic principles of human behavior, it becomes easy for us to miss the central issue—the true nature of musicality—and to focus attention on the more peripheral, though indeed obvious and in their way convincing, sensory attributes. Crucial educational concerns become clouded in this light, especially in regard to talent identification, training, and goal setting for the vast majority of human beings comprising the three more central categories of musical behavior just delineated.

If we are to seek a convincingly strong correlation between musicality and general intelligence, perhaps a new relatively untried approach for psychological research in our country might be commenced. It would require, among other things, some sort of scientific and precise analysis of exhibited musical behavior, rather than the customary analysis of a matrix of scaled sensory perceptions and results of short memory and discrimination exercises. Bona fide, complete musical examples would constitute the testing data in a variety of ways. Appropriate musical behaviors might include analyses of how quickly and accurately a subject learns to sing a new and unfamiliar song; how quickly and accurately he detects patterns projected in music that is sung, played, or heard in relation to the degree of pattern complexity and subtlety; how strongly and in what specific ways the desire for self-expression through musical idioms seems to be manifested; how high, according to teachers and other competent judges, the level of achievement attained in musical endeavors actually rates; and so on.

The musicality profiles achieved could then be compared with general intelligence profiles developed through the more traditional testing devices and procedures. Caution at this point is necessary, however, because interest and will for self-expression through musical endeavors may consume so much of the subject's time and productive mental energy, that measures of general intelligence based solely on verbal and quantitative data might be misleading. Though the problems associated with such an undertaking are complex to the point of provoking numerous speculations of contrasting nature, and the variables many, active research along these lines is badly needed and long overdue. Early experimentation elsewhere from a similar hypothetical base, as reported at the outset, gave promising results. More experimentation needs to be done at the present time, however, since more sophisticated procedures and instruments for research have been developed and the knowledge base from which to build has been greatly expanded.

Throughout the course of the foregoing discussion, we have briefly touched upon the development of both general and music psychology. The nature and basic assumptions underlying Carl Seashore's work were discussed so as to point out their profound import and influence on the unfolding endeavors by other music psychologists in this country during the present century. These underlying assumptions center around the belief that musicality and musical potential are best calculated through the measurement of sensory capacities and short exercises involving immediate musical recall and discrimination. In contrast, a theory which states that musicality is essentially and foremost the ability to deal with structures embodied in tone has been presented and discussed. Further, it has been theorized that musical behavior is not indicative of special isolated talents at work, but instead a particular manifestation of general intelligence utilizing tonal media for expression.

The suggestion has been made that research be initiated to substantiate or disprove the presented contrasting theory, and that research also be developed which might correlate more strongly than has thus far been established the ties between general intelligence and musicality. The benefits yielded by such research could indeed be valuable: the possibility of identifying more accurately the talented youngster early in his educational development; the possibility of prescribing more appropriate training routes in music for all youngsters tested; the possibility of defining more accurately and in more depth certain aspects and dimensions of the human mind; the possibility of understanding more deeply the other areas of human mental activity and their relationship to musical behavior; and finally, the refocusing of attention on the central task of all musical training, for all levels of musical performance and behavior, which is concerned with the comprehension and expression of tonal designs and patterns. Surely such goals are worthy of renewed attention and pursuit.


1Roger P. Phelps, "The Psychology of Music and Its Literature," College Music Symposium, XV (Spring, 1975), p. 114. The reader is referred to this article for a rather comprehensive coverage of the major developments and materials produced relating to the psychology of music.

2Research studies dealing with the inner-connections of musicality and general intelligence as reported in the standard sources—Dissertation Abstracts; education, psychological, and periodical indexes; and the Journal of Research in Music Education—are surprisingly few in number. More often than not, the reported studies deal with a matrix of related topics including academic and musical achievement, socioeconomic status, and aesthetic sensitivity.

Of the more recent dissertations, the following shed light on approaches formulated in this country: Leo Christy, "A Study of the Relationships between Musicality, Intelligence, and Achievement" (Indiana University, 1956); Olin Parker, "A Study of the Relationship of Aesthetic Sensitivity to Musical Ability, Intelligence, and Socioeconomic Status" (University of Kansas, 1961); and William Young, "An Investigation of the Relative and Combined Power of Musical Aptitude, General Intelligence, and Academic Achievement Tests to Predict Musical Attainment" (University of Iowa, 1969).

3James L. Mursell, Human Values in Music Education (Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett Co., 1934), p. 368. The studies are cited and listed in the footnotes.

4Paul R. Lehman, "The Predictive Measurement of Musical Success," Journal of Research in Music Education, XVII, No. 1 (Spring, 1969), p. 20.

5James L. Mursell, "Intelligence and Musicality," Bibliography of Education, LIX (May, 1939).

6Mursell, "Intelligence and Musicality," p. 560.

7The revised version of this test by Seashore, Don Lewis, and Joseph G. Saetveit is currently available from Psychological Corporation.

8See, for example, Raleigh M. Drake, "Place and Use of Music Tests," Bibliography of Education, LIX (May, 1939), p. 545.

9From 1930 to 1966, the following tests were produced: Kwalwasser-Dykema Music Tests (1930); (Wing) Standardized Tests of Musical Intelligence (1939); Conrad Instrument-Talent Test (1941); Tilson-Gretsche Musical Aptitude Test (1941); (Gaston) Test of Musicality (1942); Kwalwasser Music Talent Test (1953); Drake Musical Aptitude Tests (1954); (Gordon) Musical Aptitude Profile (1965); and (Bentley) Measures of Musical Ability. Only the initial date of publication is given.

10While the two latter testing activities just described apply to Edwin Gordon's Music Aptitude Profile, it must be pointed out that the candidate's sensitivity to and discrimination of tonal imagery (melody and harmony), rhythm imagery (tempo and meter), and musical sensitivity (phrasing, balance, and style) constitute the basic testing objective. This objective is a significant departure from that of Seashore in that sensory capacity measurement per se is discarded. Thayer Gaston's Test of Musicality and Herbert Wing's Standardized Tests of Musical Intelligence are based upon perception within a so-called musical context rather than sensory perception. The meaning of "musical context" as defined in these tests, however, is highly controversial.

11Mursell, Human Values, pp. 369-70.

12Mursell, Human Values, pp. 365-66. Throughout this passage the writer is indebted to James Mursell for the basic frame of reference presented.

13Mursell, "Intelligence and Musicality," p. 559.

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