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The Musical Child - Part 3

The TWO TYPES of Musical Giftedness

Musical intelligence was defined by Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, as "an individual who likes to sing or hum along to music, appreciates music, may play a musical instrument and remembers song melodies." Children who have an extremely high musical intelligence are prodigies. In this series, we will explore what is means to be "musically gifted," what teachers and parents can do to foster these gifts, and what the the two types of musical giftedness. In this third entry, we explore the two types of musical giftedness, the intuitive and the analytical.

Gardner's definition describes two different varieties of musical giftedness. One which is intuitive where the individual has a figural or "top-down"understanding of music. The other consists of a analytical and technical comprehension which is formal as opposed to intuitive to "bottom-up." An individual may posses qualities of both varieties.

The intuitive type of musical intelligence is far more common than the analytical type. However, the core of both types of musicality is a heightened sensitivity to musical structure-tonality, modality, harmony and rhythm. This ability to comprehend musical structure is extremely rare. as opposed to the ability to understand linguistic structure which is considered universal.


A little boy named Jacob was called a "Jimi Hendrix reincarnation:" he exhibited all of the qualities of a musical prodigy from the age of three, when he began to play his mother's acoustic guitar. Jacob was a "top-down or intuitive musical prodigy. At the age of six, he switched to the electric guitar after hearing a heavy metal band. Although the guitar is not an usual instrumental choice for a prodigy, he had chosen it for himself. He had taught himself to play "avant-garde, pseudo-music,"which interested his first teacher greatly. As soon as the teacher began to teach him, he realized that Jacob was a likely prodigy. Jacob's lessons quickly expanded from the usual 30 minutes to 90 minutes. He played the guitar every minute he could and would practice three or four hours when he did not have school. Jacob did not have to be forced to practice, which it often the case for even the most gifted musicians. In fact, some parents often go to lessons with the child and take notes to help the child practice! (However, this practice is not encouraged in most cases. Part of music study is learning how to be intrinsically motivated and the student learning to take ownership of their own progress and learning.)

Jacob also exhibited an amazing ability to play by ear. This is not common even among musically gifted children who normally learn classical music by scores. His teacher tried to teach him how to read notation, but Jacob would improvise and play songs that he had heard. After concentrated listening, Jacob could master a piece by Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. He would also compose music in his head, without writing it down. He simply remembered it. Jacob's teacher took him into a recording studio to record some of his works, however when the session was complete Jacob could hear that there were two misplaced beats. After much insistence, Jacob convinced his teacher to let him record the tracks again.

The extreme level of perfectionism seen in Jacob is typical of any gifted child. In fact, they will often only enjoy only what they can do perfectly. Sometimes they will not take any risks or try anything new. Parents and teachers need to be cognizant of such perfectionism, which can prevent the child from ever achieving success. Also, these children often give up easily and live in terror of failure. Most likely, they are miserable and need others to help them stay inspired and committed to music.

On the other side of the musical giftedness spectrum is the child with a mind for music theory and composition or the "bottom—up" prodigy. Stephen is a child who shows this other side. Stephen's preferred childhood music activity would be to listen to a performance and follow along inthe score. He began to take basic piano lessons at the age of five with a nonprofessional piano teacher. He quickly taught himself how to read music. His teacher contacted his parents within a few months and suggested that with Stephen's apparent natural aptitude, they should find him a "real music teacher." Stephen never excelled in performance, he was reluctant to practice. Instead, he enjoyed sight-reading scores and harmonizing. He would also compose pieces, which were often too difficult for him to play. He also had perfect pitch. Stephen got little out of the physical act of playing the piano. He continues in music, he will probably be composer or conductor.

A child with Stephen's version of musical giftedness often excel in other areas which use abstract notation. For example, Stephen could read at the age of three, even cursive writing by four years of age. He would draw maps, charts and diagrams, but had no interest in drawing in color or observationally. He was fascinated by foreign languages, especially those with different alphabets. One of his childhood pastimes was inventing his own alphabets. Gifted children often do not consider neatness a particularly important trait. They tend to have a special tolerance for confusion and junk; neat written work is not a priority. They hate to throw things away. Therefore. it is no wonder that musically gifted children they will find themselves lost within a score while studying or lost with the sound while performing. and not pay attention to their immediate physical surroundings. Both Jacob and Stephen showed this characteristic from the start (Winner, 89).

Often tales are told of a composer who is immersed in a mad rush to complete his symphony. For example, Mozart reported that ideas flowed the easiest when he was alone. "say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good mean, or during the night when I can not sleep." Ideas would sometimes flood his mind like an electrical storm. His brother would chase hie around the room hair-ribbons in hand, as Mozart ran between the keyboard and the writing desk. Yet when Mozart was asked of the source of his musical ideas, he replied. "Whence and how they come I knew not; nor can force them." Beethoven offered a similar response to this problem: "They come unbidden.”

The future for each musical prodigy is uncertain. As opposed to most other mental prodigies who often fail to meet early exceptions, few musical prodigies actually fade in oblivion. Most continue musical pursuits to some degree. Still one thing is for certain, a strong degree of aptitude, parental involvement and support, and devoted teachers are all pieces that fit together to form the musical prodigy puzzle. The relationships of these pieces may be explosive at times and it may be difficult to find a healthy balance.

The TOTAL CHILD needs to be kept in the hearts and minds of those working with musical prodigies in the future!

Shinichi Suzuki's famous method for musical instruction understands this tension this well, but keeps the proper focus in sight. The Suzuki method teaches that the main purpose of musical study is to provide an uplifting way to encourage the development of the "total” child. The total child needs to be kept in the hearts and minds of those working with musical prodigies in the future! Even in the cases of Jacob and Stephen, studying areas of music that they may not be as advanced in is the key to unlocking the musical genius within them. Without both skills, the musically gifted child is denied success without even being given a fair chance for success!

We are here to guide students of all abilities and ages on their creative journeys. We believe a strong foundation in fundamentals while encouraging individual expression is the key to a holistic music education. Both the intuitive and analytical aspects of music are needed to create a well-rounded music education. We believe in the power of the arts; we believe that music can heal the heart, stimulate the mind, and touch the soul.

To learn more about the music education and enrichment for students opportunities for students of ALL AGES through Perennial Music and Arts, email us.


Perennial Music and Arts where creativity blooms.



Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. (1985). Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Random House.

Boerner. Steve. The Mozart Project.

De Mink, Freya. Musical Prodigies: Past, Present, And Future.

Jourdain, Robert. (1997). Music, The Brain and Ecstasy. New York: William Marrow and Company, Inc.

Kenneson, Claude. (1998). Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives. Portland. Or: Amadeus Press

Multiple Intelligences: What Does The Research Say?

Renuad, Lucie. (2000). Child Prodigies: A Poisoned Paradise?

The Suzuki Method.

Using Multiple Intelligences Theory In Choosing A Career.

Watson Fellow to Explore Myth. Reality of Musical Wunderkind. The Chronicle.

ZIker, Sally Yahkne. (1991). The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids: How to Understand, Live With, and Stick Up for Your Gifted Child. Minneapolis. MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Winner, Ellen. (1996). Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. New York: Basic Books.


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