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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.