Many music educators, myself included, thought Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences was useful when it first appeared. But over time, some of us became frustrated with it being limited to separating out the individual components of what in the end needs to be a whole, integrated person. On the heels of hard won gains in holistic education, the theory of multiple intelligences is re-compartmentalizing schooling, by suggesting that a different curriculum can be developed for each intelligence, whereas what is needed is a curriculum for the whole person. While Gardner insists that the various intelligences can be merged together in life and education, the discourse of multiple intelligences reifies intelligence into separable entities, each testable and isolatable.
The effects of this first became evident when I was a teaching assistant for sociomusicologist Charlie Keil. He noticed that music education teachers in his popular Afro-Latin musical praxis course would resist participatory musicking strategies by asking for scores and notations of the drum parts, positioning themselves as "visual learners" and in need of specialized instruction. In many cases, this went against the participatory consciousness that Charlie was trying to teach by listening, watching, doing, feeling, and grooving in a group. That got me thinking about multiple intelligences in a new way, and whether it was really useful for teaching people how to make music. Since then, some of us have discussed Gardner as being "trapped in a bourgeois ideology" or somehow "caught between paradigms," but to me, Gardner's theory is about reviving the same old visually oriented elitist musical canons of Western civilization that have alienated most ordinary people from doing their own musicking. Although notation does not play a major role in his "core musical operations," to me, Western music in general, by way of notation, transfers music from the right to the left side of the brain, where it can be read as text, but which disables the primordial musicking instincts that all humans seem to possess.
Besides this, his theory is largely monocultural, with little or no mention, for example, of the musics of the African Diaspora that form the basis for most global pop music today, and with only cursory mentions of other non-Western traditions. While Gardner seems meticulous in making sure that we give equal weight to the mind and body intelligences as separate entities, something that should be rightly applauded, it seems to me that intelligent musicking involves integrated humans in participatory relationships nested in culture and ecology. By looking at the theory of musical intelligence as embodying some of the central assumptions and structures of Western modernity—Cartesian individualism, elitist cultural politics, and an obsession with assessment—I wish to argue that conceptualizing and learning music the modernist way shuts people down at a very early age, which can result in an enculturated form of what I am referring to as musical stupidity.
Louis Terman’s infamous circular definition of intelligence as "what we measure on intelligence tests" has given way to more complex definitions, such as that offered by Howard Gardner (1993b): "intelligence entails the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community." According to Gardner, problem-solving requires goals and plotting routes to achieve them, which can lead to the creation of a "cultural product" (p. 15). While Gardner's view is certainly an improvement over the old circular definitions, it still retains a basic cultural assumption of Western civilization that intelligence is an attribute of the autonomous individual. Gardner frequently relies on the autonomous individual to explain his theories, with little social reality acknowledged beyond a mention of "large numbers of individuals" who may learn by way of the Suzuki method (1993a, p. 112), or when he wonders whether "individuals in other cultures" felt as isolated as John Lennon did when no one noticed his early talents (p. 115), or when mentioning music cognition, in which "individuals expect that the verbal material will interfere with the melodic material" (pp. 117-18), or in discussions of Stravinsky, in which Gardner (1993c) reduces social, political and economic context to "groups of individuals" that "quickly reaches the hundreds" (p. 127).
As a consequence of this fixation on the autonomous individual, Gardner (1993b) advocates "individual-centered schooling" (p. 68). He sees this as an antidote to standards and cultural literacy, which seeks a "uniform view" (p. 69) of one sort or another, a point that Gardner has developed in his numerous debates with conservative cultural critic E. D. Hirsch. To Gardner, education should insure that individuals are able to maximize all of their potentials, and to achieve this Gardner's individual-centered school relies on profiling to assess individual intelligences and tailor instruction accordingly (1993a, p. xv). This is to be accomplished be developing a fairer set of measurements that do not rely on language and logic as their primary criteria. Gardner seems to have realized that intelligence is context specific and that the earlier quest for "raw" intelligence is misguided. He sums it up this way:
At the level of the individual, it is proper to speak about one or more human intelligences, or human intellectual proclivities, that are part of our birthright. These intelligences may be thought of in neurobiological terms. Human beings are born into cultures that house a large number of domains—disciplines, crafts, and other pursuits in which one can become enculturated and then be assessed in terms of the level of competence one has attained. While domains, of course, involve human beings, they can be thought of in an impersonal way—because the expertise in a domain can in principle be captured in a book, a computer program, or some other kind of artifact. (1993, p. xvi)
His "triangle of creativity" investigates the dialectics within the individual, the domain in which they work, and the field of "knowledgeable experts who evaluate works in the domain" (Gardner 1993c, p. 380). Yet in its sophistication, the discussion still hinges on the autonomous individual as the primary locus of intelligence.
Focusing on the autonomous individual as the locus of intelligence distorts and obscures the nested hierarchy that places individuals in a cultural setting, which, in turn, grows out of a broader ecosystem. The implications of this modernist oversight are developed by Bowers (1995, p. 105):
[T]he view of intelligence as an attribute of the individual, as well as the educational practices predicated upon it, reinforce the same deep cultural assumptions that lead us to view every technological innovation as the expression of progress, and to mistakenly interpret the visual sensation of the plenitude of shopping malls as validating the ideal of individual freedom rather than as a metaphor of a culture that is destroying the chances of future generations to live in balance with the Earth's ecosystems.
These latter issues suggest that what we are calling intelligence can sometimes be nested in an "ecology of bad ideas," to use Bateson's phrase (1972, p. 484). From the realization that intelligence is in a sense immanent, not isolated, Bowers concludes: "If we nest individuals in the symbolic systems of culture, and cultures in the natural systems that are the source of the many of energy humans rely upon, then we have a very different way of understanding intelligence" (1995, p. 126).
The individual-centered view of intelligence is also at odds with the insights formulated by linguists like Sapir, Whorf, and Vygotsky, all of whom in their own ways make a strong case that as people use language to express thoughts, the language they use thinks for them as well by way of its metaphors and taken-for-granted modes of understanding. Language can also encode a cultural form of intelligence that is "based on ways of understanding cultural/environmental relationships that are not sustainable," which may also sustain the ecology of bad ideas (Bowers 1995, p. 115). Once one accepts this, it becomes possible to see that "the wide range of competing root metaphors that characterize modern culture (masculine versus feminine, anthropocentric versus ecological models, mechanistic versus process, God-centered versus secular and individually-centered, to identify just a few) makes it possible, even necessary in some instances, to select which root metaphor and accompanying metaphorical language will be used to think and communicate about relevant aspects of the world" (p. 120). With respect to communication, Bowers continues: "The anthropocentrism in the West, with its emphasis on intelligence as essentially a human attribute, as well as the practice of treating communication as a sender-receiver process of sharing information between individuals, has contributed to a form of conscious awareness that recognizes only a limited range of communication" (Bowers 1995, p. 121). If one considers the ecological view of intelligence put forth by Bowers, then it becomes possible to see that everything communicates information, and that intelligence can be immanent everywhere.
The cult of the autonomous individual creates an ecology of heroism for musicians and artists, sometimes even leading to a form of deification, as we often see in the case of composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, which centralizes innovation, progress, and change as essential elements of musical intelligence. Viewing musical intelligence as an attribute of the autonomous individual also downplays the implications of the nested hierarchy of people, culture, and environment. Though Gardner acknowledges that some cultures are more "traditional," in which intelligence can be measured by the adherence of an individual to his cultural traditions, this still imposes an individual-centered Western explanation on the varieties of human experience. To find two brief examples, one could look toward Islamic and indigenous peoples. Qur’anic recitation, which Gardner categorizes as linguistic intelligence, is a complex sound art with specific organizational features, the centrality of which has informed sacred and secular musical practice throughout the Islamic world (Faruqi 1984).
The Qur'an in Arabic is revealed from the Divine, the other-than-human world of the unseen, and for Muslims its recitation as a sound art reproduces that connection to the Divine. Similarly, for many indigenous peoples, musical practices are informed by the environment in which they live, be it a desert, forest, or river valley. Sovereignty for sound-making, whether music, chanting, recitation, or prayer, lies not with the autonomous individual in such cultures; it lies within the relationship between people and these other-than-human realities. To position such relationships within the minds of autonomous individuals, or to see them as simple modes of communication among autonomous individuals, is to do deep damage to our understanding of non-Western ways of being, and basing a theory of musical intelligence on this premise limits the possibilities for musicking to a very narrow segment of humanity.
In the recesses of discussions on musical intelligence there lurks a struggle over cultural politics. Whose music gets exemplified, normalized, assessed, and venerated is more and more a political struggle. It is no longer tenable to assume that the Western classics are by definition the epitome of humanity's musical accomplishment, for all time and across cultures (a premise that Gardner, to some extent, shares with his arch-nemesis, E. D. Hirsch). While much of the musical-intelligence literature is about implementing this theory, often to justify funding for the fine arts, this has led to a utilitarian pairing of a broad range of the arts with other subjects. In many cases, this has also ended up constricting the freedom of art and music teachers by linking them up with the new-standards movement (and its funding). During the 1990s, with increased funding for the arts, there has been a resurgence of interest in public music programs gutted by budget cuts in the 1980s. But a lot of these developments are problematic for two reasons: either they link music in a utilitarian relationship with other subjects as a sort of handmaiden to improve performance or increase interest in the academic subjects (the "Mozart effect"), or they assume music as taking on a sort of civilizing mission by promoting the Western canon, implying that the ultimate purpose of school music programs is to train future musicians and patrons for that tradition. Although he is not as rigid and single minded as Hirsch about promoting the Western canon, and despite a few token references to selected non-Western musical traditions, Gardner is still in the thick of cultural and political struggles over the meaning and purpose of art and music in society, as implied by his choice of musical exemplars in Mozart, Stravinsky, and others within the Western canon.
Gardner’s attempts to muster cross-cultural validity for his theories often fall short and instead reveal his Eurocentrism (despite his frequent protestations of this epithet). Musical intelligence apparently has several components, which get intertwined with the process of normalizing definitions of music: "there is relatively little dispute about the principal constituent elements of music" (Gardner 1993a, p. 104). These are pitch and rhythm, with timbre "next in importance." But this is a Eurocentric ranking. For example, to many indigenous peoples, timbre is often the key feature. Pitch, Gardner claims, is more central in "Oriental" societies, which favor "tiny" quarter tone intervals. But in Islamic culture, for instance, it is the subtle rhythmic variations that make the music interesting, not the quarter tones, which in any case are taken for granted even though they may sound "odd" and "exotic" to Westerners, whose hearing is severely impaired by cultural acclimation to the twelve-tone scale. Similarly, Gardner's Eurocentric understanding of world musics is also evident in his citing "dizzying" African rhythmic complexity, again centralizing the Western feeling toward those musics as the normative definition.
While Gardner (1993a) admits that his discussion is "partial to Western civilization in the period following the Renaissance" (to be more accurate, he'd need to add elite patriarchal civilization, which found its musical apex in the orchestral forms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), he occasionally casts a cursory "glance around the globe" to search for verification of his theory. Just as in the colonial mode of thought, in which white reign dictates that the natives are useful insofar as their cultures verify Western norms; deviations from those norms are ignored, adjusted, or destroyed. Gardner is not immune from this colonial imperative. For instance, he uses a paragraph on African musics to introduce a discussion on the applicability of Piagetian theory to musical development, followed by (Western) debates on the figural versus formal aspects of music (1993a, p. 110). At one point, he evokes the rest of the world (p. 115), exclaiming about the "stunning range of attitudes toward the creation of music" (stunning to whom?), and, again cursorily noting some cross cultural examples that provide an illusion of multicultural inclusivity and scientific objectivity as a front for what remains a distinctly elitist, Eurocentric discourse.
But even within the norms of the Western canon, Gardner's analysis of music and culture falls short. When he notes that Mozart produced "permanent works in a genre" (1997, p. 60), he doesn't acknowledge two main points about the great master and his works. First, Mozart loved to improvise, to "play" with music and then later wrote down what sounded good. Second, genres and permanency were created by social sifting processes that left behind only several hundred symphonies out of more than twenty thousand composed. In light of these features of Western musical genius, one would need to ask questions like the following: Why not teach improvisation if the great master was first and foremost an improviser? How did some of these works and not others become "permanent works"? What happened to all the other works? Who decides which ones become permanent works? Though he seems to feel his Eurocentrism, Gardner does not engage the reader in any meaningful discussions to counter it.
Discussions of musical intelligence, which for Gardner seem intertwined with discussions of talent and the great masters of the Western tradition, are further complicated by debates currently raging in musicology and related fields. Two traditional camps, intra-musical and extra-musical, have been vying for authority in the field. To this mix, one might add the recent infusion of cultural studies and feminist theory, not only in the extra-musical camp, where they would appear to be at home, but in the intra-musical camp, too (e.g., McClary 1991). Here, the music is seen to contain embodied social realities and relationships, cultural assumptions, and gendered or colonial biases. Although the whole notion of whether or not music can capture and communicate emotions and meaning is itself debatable (e.g., Keil & Feld 1994), if, as Gardner suggests, "Music can serve as a way of capturing feelings, knowledge about feelings, or knowledge about the forms of feeling, communicating them from the performer or the creator to the attentive listener" (1993a, p. 124), then we need to look at the full range of those feelings. For example, in McClary's (1991) reading of one great work of the Western canon, "the point of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music" (p. 28), an episode which Adrienne Rich (1973) saw much earlier, as articulated in her poem “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message” (pp. 205-6). McClary's work is at the forefront of a new musicology that applies the usual tools of formalist analysis to the great Western canon, but which is not limited to the staid tradition of unquestioning veneration of the masters.
Musicologists have also begun to look closely at the social context of the great masters. Some of these studies focus on patronage and class and how genres were adopted or rejected. So, for example, while "Mozart may have begun to orient himself to a consciously articulated notion of masterpieces at a time when the prevailing winds of musical fashion were still directed away from... the 'unmeaning art and contrivance' of J. S. Bach," Beethoven's music "was recognized from the beginning as 'higher' and more 'learned'—as 'connoisseur's' music” (Bowen 1998, p. 15, citing DeNora 1995). Viennese aristocrats used Beethoven and emerging notions of "serious" music to maintain social distance from the middle class during a time of economic change. "Much of the groundwork for this shift occurred in the private world of aristocratic salons," continues DeNora (1995, pp. 18-19), "particularly as activity in these salons centered on Beethoven, who was uniquely celebrated for the expressiveness and complexity of his compositions."
Mozart’s music was dragooned into cultural service "as the Kingpin of Salzburg's nationalist cosmopolitanism: the sharing of German culture with the outside world." Therefore, his unredeemed hero, Don Giovanni, was recruited by the Salzburg festival impresarios to play alongside Hofmannsthal's Jedermann (his adaptation of Everyman), and The Magic Flute became "a natural common denominator for Salzburg's Mozart and baroque cults and Third Reich volkisch ideology." Far from being the free-floating universal genius he has become since Amadeus, Mozart was right in the thick of cultural politics, as in fact his music has always been. (Said 1991, pp. 57-8, citing Steinberg 1990)
This line of inquiry suggests that the artists Gardner and others venerate today, whose works are portrayed as timeless and universal, were intertwined with identity formation that favored different classes of people—and their music—over others. It is not too far a leap, then, to see that they serve a similar function today, with recent arguments focusing on the moral worth and uplifting qualities of the classics, the so-called Mozart effect. But:
If Beethoven could have been used as a propaganda device by the winning side, if Wagner could have been perverted to support the megalomaniac obscenity of Nazism, if concentration camp doctors could have spent their days performing unspeakable experiments on human beings and pass their evenings peacefully playing Mozart and Haydn quartets, where, then, was the moral authority claimed for the tradition?” (Small 1980, p. 119).
What is now called "classical music" emerged from the vernacular traditions of different regions in Europe. The classics fed the vernacular as they were fed by it. Even the great masters, such as Mozart, were improvisers. And it is ironic indeed that the best of today's performers in this tradition have rarely composed a piece of their own, and improvisation is frowned upon. Instead, preservation has taken precedence over process (Small 1987), and culture has crystallized into civilization (Keil & Feld 1994, p. 228). What has happened, in other words, is that later generations have canonized these cultural vernaculars into "the classics" of "Western Civilization," which was made possible by the composers themselves, who set down their works in visual scores, but which ultimately perpetuates the preservation of centuries-old elite culture.
The cultural politics that created the genres and styles that we venerate today are still at work, and once people realize this, then the classics will "either remain, or they will not, according to the extent to which they are found relevant to the lives of those who hear their music" (Small 1980, p. 219). Even within the West, the civilized classics are a small part of the sum total of musical possibilities and experiences. And besides, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, if there ever were a "universal" music style, it would certainly have to be those musics derived from the African Diaspora. So, too, would one need to take into consideration the mediating effects of mass culture and the still-lively musical vernacular traditions around the planet. Absent any mention of these factors, one would have to assume that they are either unworthy of consideration or that the Western classics are somehow intertwined with inviolable cultural themes of the West. All of these factors have the end result of alienating most people from attempting to participate in musicking of their own.
Music at the Alter of OWM
In an open letter to a university music department, Keil (1991) defined the parameters of a musical challenge into the twenty-first century: "How about setting a policy that all hiring over the next decade or two will be in the interests of broadening offerings in African-American, Afro-Latin, and World Music, until the rest of the world is at least on an equal footing with the Old White Male (OWM) west?" While history and English departments began dismantling their "OWM shrines" to broaden their perspectives earlier in the century, music departments have remained among the most conservative curators of the OWM tradition. And Keil is not alone in suggesting that there is a quasi-religious dimension to what he calls "OWM worship" (Kingsbury 1991), and that universities are curating the products of a world largely without women (McClary 1991). For any discussion of music, performance, talent, and intelligence to be meaningful, it is "vital to acknowledge the backwardness of musicology with regard to cultural and feminist theory, especially in comparison to literary, film, and performance studies" (Schwartz 1995).
Music at the alter of OWM also remains bound up with notions of the Absolute. Its staunchest proponents insist on the paradoxical position that the music is experienced both individually and as a universal. In other words, OWM worship encompasses everything except social and cultural and realities. This is not to say that musicology is without its internal debates on these questions—quite the contrary, as noted above. Although one would not know it reading Gardner and his proponents, interdisciplinary approaches to musicology in the 1980s and 1990s shifted from analysis of structural patterns to methods that take into consideration the social and political context of compositions (Agawu 1997).
Part of the problem here comes back to my earlier point of situating music and intelligence in the mind of the autonomous individual. For Gardner, formally recognized individuals seem to matter most. When discussing music, he limits himself to exceptional individuals, those famous composers of the OWM canon. As the musically intelligent are identified, it is their disciplined acclimation to the norms of OWM worship that will one day mark them as musically competent. This acclimation involves identifying the forms and meters and other conventions of the OWM corpus. Gardner is uneasy with the implicit race, gender, and class dynamics inherent in venerating the OWM corpus. Although he seems to believe that "music occupies a relatively low niche in our culture," he neglects the enormous popularity of pop, rock, rap, and other musics in the West, each with its own musical language and accepted competencies, yet not worthy of mention in the OWM orthodoxy. He is perhaps here just a victim of the discourse he cites, in this case mainstream conservative musicology. But, in a sense, this is the key to his whole enterprise. Whose discourse will rule? While it may seem a noble intention for Gardner to dismantle and problematize the legacy of inequity in biases towards language and math, he does not allow himself to move beyond other stodgy norms of Western modernity.
Gardner (1993a) accords a great deal of weight to composing in his quest for the parameters of musical intelligence. He cites the composer Roger Sessions, who spoke of having "tones in his head," which is another defining feature of musical intelligence. However, Gardner notes that much of this head music is "worth little musically," suggesting that some music is of value and other works not. The question becomes, who decides? Copland, Wagner, Saint-Saens, and Schoenberg all seem to agree that there is a certain "naturalness of the act of composition," which leads Gardner into the debates on the role of language in music, in which Sessions and Stravinsky are archetypes of the assertion that "language plays no role in the act of composition." But language here seems to mean spoken language, in the compartmentalized realm of linguistic intelligence, which does not rule out the essentialist position that music is a sort of ineffable language, with the composer being its earthly translator, and that it is a medium of communication, usually of specific emotions, but which in the end points to problems with the limitations of a highly disciplined discourse.
How music communicates, or what is its message, is more of a murky question, and one that ethnomusicologists have reflected upon. In many cases, listeners utilize a series of "interpretive moves" to bring alive a piece anew each time they listen to it (Feld 1984). Gardner's lack of awareness of this discussion within musicology and its kindred disciplines is suggested by his relying instead on Copland, who insisted that listeners be educated (indoctrinated?) to achieve the skills needed to appreciate the finer points of Western art music, skills which Gardner likens to those of composing (1993a, p. 102). When Schoenberg says there is nothing in the music except the constant shaping of the original musical idea, Gardner still wants to understand this mysterious innate "musical lexicon," so he turns to another composer, Harold Shapero, who suggests that "the musical mind is concerned predominantly with the mechanisms of tonal memory," elevating melody and harmony over rhythm and texture, further revealing the Eurocentric foundations of Gardner's understanding of music and intelligence.
To this core set of attributes of musical intelligence, Gardner adds "audition," with the ironic reminder that some composers have produced works that can be appreciated entirely visually. But this colludes with the inherent visual bias in Western art music that relies on a written score for realization and articulation. Still other members of Gardner's OWM brigade cite affect and pleasure as defining factors of musical intelligence (1993, p. 105). Here he sees, “in its most sophisticated terms, the claim that, if music does not in itself convey emotions or affects, it captures the forms of these feelings" (p. 106, emphasis in original). Even if one takes this assertion at face value, it means that music may embody all sorts of feelings, which leads Gardner to a discussion of music and emotions in which he cites Sessions on music capturing the "form" of culture-bound abstracted emotions such as fear and despair.
Subsequent to Frames of Mind and Multiple Intelligences, Gardner's work began to look in more detail at individuals that exemplify his theories of intelligence. In Creating Minds (1993c), he profiles seven individuals who exemplify each of his seven intelligences. He chose Stravinski as the musical mind but cautions that what makes each of the creators great is their particular blend of intelligences. While Stravinski (along with Gandhi) did not do well in school, Gardner (1993c, p. 363) emphasizes that this was not due to "any fundamental [presumably biological] intellectual flaw," but simply because of lack of (cultural?) interest. And,
Stravinsky was interested in the world of children, but certainly did not dote on his own childhood and took no special pleasure in appearing to act like a child. He probably was most reminiscent of a child in his extraordinary litigious nature—his desire to pick, and then to win, every fight and, if possible, humiliate "the enemy" in the process. Like other modern artists, he anchored his work in the most basic elements of the medium—primitive rhythms and harmonies of the sort that had so impressed him when he was a young child. (Gardner 1993c, p. 366)
Gardner cites Stravinsky's famous assertion that music does not express anything by noting that the composer intended it as a rebuttal to those who would marshal music to nonmusical ends. Stravinsky wanted to replace "emotional self-expression with strictly musical statements" (1993c, p. 220), apparently contra Wagner and the Romanticists. Although Gardner would not see it as such, Stravinsky seems to have had a real flare for disputation—his "litigious nature," as Gardner puts it—suggesting that he might have had a proclivity toward "contra-personal intelligence." One could make a case for this across cultures, too, as in Talmudic and Qur'anic commentary, or Marxist dialectics. That Stravinsky fashioned himself in opposition to others is evident in his music, which constantly challenged the norms of nineteenth-century Romanticism. The Rite of Spring was Stravinsky's most challenging work (1993c, p. 200), and in it he marshaled forces to "shock, provoke, and challenge." Indeed it did, but though Stravinsky was initially panned for his waywardness, over the years he, too, became part of the OWM canon. This process is lost on Gardner, who seems to read present realities into the past. And the language used to discuss his work is conventional, as in when Gardner uses perfectly ordinary OWM language to describe Stravinsky's use of chromaticism for supernatural effects, diatonics for humanness, and "Oriental" strains for the Russia of yore (1993c, p. 196). This discussion also ignores Stravinsky's control fetish that ended up gutting jazz idioms, as exemplified in his Ebony Concerto, stiffly performed from score by Woody Herman's Orchestra.
While he venerates many of the canonical great men of Western music, Gardner reserves his true adulation for Mozart. In Extraordinary Minds (1997), he develops Mozart as an exemplar of mastery in a particular domain, one among a few "seminal artists." According to Gardner, Mozart as Master had as his goal the complete mastery of the formal musical conventions of his day. Gardner boldly proclaims that Mozart’s accomplishments in music "may have eclipsed those of any other human being in the realm of the arts" (1997, p. 55). Yet the master appears to have miraculously operated as a disembodied mind, "almost as if, independent of the events in his personal life and in the wider society, Mozart's brain had been set to produce a certain number of melodies and compositions per unit of time," attributes which characterize his high level of productivity (1997, p. 66). But Gardner gives short shrift to a key aspect of Mozart's approach to composition, as mentioned earlier: his reliance on improvisation. In fact, "Mozart seems to have regarded composition as the provision of something to play" (Small 1987, p. 51), suggesting his "playfulness" with the music.
Gardner seems to recognize the latter aspects, noting that "Mozart’s music retains a simplicity and elegance that we associate with the innocence of childhood" (Gardner 1997, p. 67), but he fails to see beyond the blinders of OWM worship to discuss Mozart the improviser as well as the composer. And, true to OWM worship, improvisation does not even make the list of attributes for considering musical intelligence. Mozart himself would probably be aghast at how his playful art has been crystallized. The almost myth-like image of Mozart in Extraordinary Minds seems somehow closer to Hollywood than to any reality of the past. In fact, Gardner ascribes anachronistic agency to the long-dead master in saying that "Mozart has created our sense of the prodigy" (Gardner 1997, p. 67). No, he didn't; Hollywood, musicologists, and other scholars involved in OWM worship created Mozart the prodigy. This irony of cultural colonization eludes Gardner, who preaches the enduring popularity of Mozart's compositions "in every society to which they have been introduced" (p. 67), thus dutifully propagating the Gospel of OWM to the less fortunate minions in a perfectly colonial worldview.
Talent and Assessment
In one of his introductions to the concept of musical intelligence, Gardner (1993a) refers to "talent," which is "endowed" and a "gift," the "nature" of which is uncertain. But by invoking Bach and Mozart in this context, he is introducing readers directly into the world of Western musical monoculture and by implication setting its standards of taste and talent above others. After a few token cross-cultural references, Gardner suggests that, while "musical achievement is not strictly a reflection of inborn ability but is susceptible to cultural stimulation and training," it also "pays to have adequate or lavish genetic background" (p. 112). To bolster this, he cites musical families from the OWM music tradition. Although he seems to sit on the fence between the nature-nurture debate, Gardner leans toward a "genetic proclivity" and "considerable genetic potential" as a necessary factor to "reach the heights of musical achievement," but which is liable to be unrealized or immature depending on upbringing and social conditions (p. 113), the nature of which are vague. This continues unabated right into one of his subsequent works, The Disciplined Mind (1999), in which he also posits Mozart as the exemplar of beauty.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Gardner offers no reasoned response to criticisms that his discussion of musical intelligence is elitist. As noted above, he is using the norms of OWM music culture as a baseline from which a few individuals can attain the highest degree of achievement as specialists according to its dictates. As Gardner the cultural spokesman declares, "Ultimately, any individual in our culture who would wish to gain musical competence should master formal musical analysis and representation," albeit "at a cost" (1993, p. 111), thus reinforcing one of the key tenets of OWM worship. Although he senses that something is amiss here, in that the development of the formal mode will occur at the expense of the figurative, he is unable to conceptualize the two outside of a duality, pitting differences against each other. So, to Gardner, musical intelligence is an "ability" that can be identified in various quantities: "Leonard Bernstein had lots of it; Mozart, presumably, had even more" (Gardner 1993b, p. 15). And, in an individual-centered regime of assessment, "tests of musical intelligence would examine the individual's ability to analyze a work of music or to create one" (p. 39). Gardner's insistence that musicality involves "knowing how to perform a piece of music to bring out its deeper structures or its contrasting moods" (1993b, p. 42), only further reinforcing the gospel of OWM.
Gardner suggests that it is not necessary for all individuals in a group to master multiple intelligences, because, "so long as the individuals 'at promise' in particular domains are located efficiently, the overall knowledge of the group will be advanced in all domains" (1993b, p. 29). Besides reinforcing the necessity of keeping the intelligences separate so that educators can locate and measure people for efficiency, the dilemma is to identify as many "at risk" individuals in order to bring them closer to an "at promise" level. But one wonders, in light of all the discussion on the attributes of a musically intelligent or "at promise" individual, what would an "at risk" (musically stupid?) individual be like? One key seems to involve identifying early affective reactions to various domains, at which time more formal introduction into the intelligence can take place (p. 29). This, presumably, must involve measurement, in the belief that a careful regime of testing will better serve pre-existing cultural proclivities by assigning people to what they do best. While Gardner sees these insights as supporting individual-centered schooling, taken together with his emphasis on testing, such a regime could also lead to a rigid sorting and human profiling, in which cultures "profit" from individual differences and managers "are able to 'staff' our numerous roles and niches more effectively because people exhibit different profiles of intelligence" (1993, p. 71). Framed in this way, the theory brings to mind a science fiction story by Orson Scott Card, from the Monkey Sonatas, where children are tested at two and schooled into areas for which they are thought to be best suited, slotting people by intelligence for life.
Descriptions of testing and assessment abound in Gardner's work, as in, for example, his admonition that "one is assessing a complex compound of initial proclivities and societal opportunities" (1993b, p. 222). While he seems to realize that intelligence cannot be measured in the abstract, that there cannot be separate tests for each intelligence, and that forms of performance-based assessment "would be ascertaining the nature and extent of previous experiences in the realm of music" (p. 222), he still insists on measurement, the shared feature of most forms of testing and assessment. Even if teachers use a more subtle assessment regime that evolves over time, with the individual being observed by teachers and others who can examine "their profile of intelligences at work and play" (p. 222), the utility of Gardner's theory is evident in that "individuals charged with assessing promise in the musical domain will be able to draw on findings from this eclectic approach to musical competence" (1993a, p. 108).
As the above examples suggest, in reading Gardner's work one is struck by his numerous references to locating, measuring, categorizing, testing, and assessing intelligence. Though he distances himself from his psychometric colleagues, he seems to share their proclivity toward assessments and testing. While the measurements of the early psychometricians are now seen for what they were, as racist and repressive mechanisms of social control and validation for white supremacy (Gould 1981; Kevles 1985; Kincheloe, Steinberg & Gresson 1996), the will to know via measurement remains. In Gardner's case, the rhetoric of social efficiency has been replaced with, and at times merges with, that of the human-potential movement. Both seem to value tests and assessments, although the latter with seemingly benign intention, but the will to measurement is still intertwined with the old inequities and injustices, particularly with respect to music and the concept of "talent" as understood in Western civilization. In this context, it is possible to realize that, extrapolating from Small (1980), Gardner is committed to the two major norms of late modernity: rationalist science and classicist music.
Whether on prefers authentic assessment, standardized testing, or any other ways of measuring achievement and talent in use today, they all lose sight of the profoundly human factors that bring the notes of a musical score to life but which are impossible to evaluate objectively. Nevertheless, music conservatories have developed what might be called a "feel" or "intuition" to decide who has talent, as opposed to mere skill, and who has the "right touch" and "emotional disposition" to truly and faithfully render the works of the great masters. What may appear to be an arbitrary process to outsiders is subject to the norms and allegiances of those within the conservatory cultural system, a process which in the end determines who will go on to become concert soloists and who will become accompanists (Kingsbury 1988). Students entering into this cultural system assign meaning to this social construction of talent "to help them in developing strategies to negotiate their way in the community" (Roberts 1990). Paradoxically, as Kingsbury (1984) has noted, "an appraisal of talent is an ex post facto judgement" that is assessed based on performance; therefore in the conservatory cultural system, talent "is a symbol of inequality of potential." This paradox "occasionally leads students into the dilemma where knowledge about a supposed or assumed talent is incongruent with observed knowledge about a performance" (Roberts 1990).
Assessments of talent also rely on "speech about music" (Feld 1984), with the norms of interpretation embodied in the language the experts use to talk about music, talent, and performance. Yet the mystical world of assessing talent demands linguistic vigilance from students entering into the system. Kingsbury (1991) found that, "although 'music' is quite literally a sacred notion within the conservatory, each class is organized in terms of a specific (hence secularized, mundane, practical) topical problem" (p. 203). He concludes that one of the key lessons that conservatory students learn is a "sociocultural skill in the use of verbal imagery" and "how to use and invoke the notion of music" and other socially defined concepts like talent, expression, and feeling (p. 203). At the same time, "the myriad senses of the word 'music' should be understood as at once the social grammar and the social poetic of a rather closely associated community, and that the various uses of the word are in fact learned in the context of interaction in and among such a community" (p. 203). While students subjected to such a regime of assessment learn to work the system, what this suggests is that notions of talent are socially constructed and maintained in a complex ecology of meaning and power. To the extent that influential scholars like Gardner normalize such manifestations of conservatory culture, its assumptions will continue to colonize experience.
Since in the end music is something to be experienced in many different ways, we should be wary of theories that limit possibilities. For example, while he respects and writes about the theory of multiple intelligences with some enthusiasm, Keil (1998, p. 40) also warns that:
there are alienation effects, misplaced concreteness, misleading objectifications in this literature that, no matter how welcome the news is about the importance of musicking and dancing to full human growth and development, must finally be put aside in favor of a model that stresses one tightly integrated if multifaceted intelligence and one brain inside a whole human being.
Keil further suggests that debates around multiple versus unitary intelligences are intertwined with broader debates about class versus classless society, and, following Marx, believes the key to good living and good education is for each person to embody their full range of potentials.
So, while the theory of multiple intelligences helps to clarify that there is more to being human than mastering math and language skills, it could also "point toward a world in which the educator's job is to find and bring out the single intelligence that a child is best at, so that society finds niches for and integrates lopsided individuals into an efficient division of labor in which everyone is supposedly happiest doing mostly what they do best" (Keil, 1998 p. 43). Keil recognizes with others that, at the end of the day, testing and assessment justify and explain social hierarchies (Lewontin 1991; Hubbard & Wald 1999). No matter how benevolent or broad-minded it might be, any regime of testing and assessment, especially one which relies on unexamined constructs of talent and competition, which has pretensions of universal biologism, and which does not directly address legacies of inequity, will result in success for a few, failure for many, and unjust hierarchy for all, hardly a supportive setting for good musicking.
Adventures in Musical Stupidity
Christopher Small has suggested that everyone "is born capable of musicking" (1987, p. 52), while John Slaboda has observed that "our society—particularly the modern system of formal education—is set up to produce a large number of musical 'walking wounded'" (1993, p. 112). This prompted Allen Farmelo (1997) to ask questions like, "How is it that people come to be musicians or non-musicians? If born fully capable, why are so may of us walking-wounded?" Part of the answer is that people are sorted by the kind of assessment regimes advocated by many adherents of multiple intelligences methodology. A more sinister function of formal assessment is to give objectivity to failure, providing people with the tools to recognize forms of inferiority and stupidity. American academics have a hard time talking about stupidity with any degree of sensitivity or complexity. This is understandable, since, with a few exceptions, the discourse is either crass and racist, blaming the victims of unjust social systems, or fraught with well-meaning denial and apology. This is due in part to the horrid legacy of the American treatment of stupidity. The connection of Darwin and Galton between intelligence, heredity and evolution, coupled with the rediscovery of genetics at the turn of the century, resulted in a wide-ranging movement to measure and classify intelligence.
At first, researchers busied themselves by assigning IQs to one another and to Old White Men of the past, but eventually the new science of intelligence was put to work for public policy. Immigration laws barred "idiots, lunatics, and epileptics" and others deemed "feebleminded," with some academics even calling for castration and sterilization to prevent continuity of hereditary stupidity. The eugenics movement gained momentum in the early part of the twentieth century, but when the Nazis put the theories to practice in larger scale, eugenics was tarnished as a valid science. Though some still cling to its basic tenets, in general, adherence to eugenicist thought and action remains a barometer for detecting racism and other forms of bias in American culture (Kincheloe, Steinberg, and Gresson 1996). This is partly the legacy that Gardner seeks to discredit, too, with his vigilant denunciation of the psychometricians and the cultural literacy movement. But discrediting a particular virulent form of scientific racism should not be equated with the belief that stupidity does not exist, despite polite academic aversions. I wish to suggest a different way of thinking about and dealing with stupidity.
Education scholars and activists committed to social justice have developed ways of talking about stupidity without resorting to the barbarisms of the psychometricians and without linking intelligence to dominant Western cultural values. Macedo uses the term "stupidification" to describe "linguistic games that disfigure reality" (1994, p. 6), which are embedded in educational practices that focus on formal, procedural, and behavioral matters at the expense of larger economic, cultural, and sociopolitical factors that perpetuate race, class, and gender bias. Gatto's (1992) "seven-lesson schoolteacher," who teaches a hidden curriculum of confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and surveillance, has contributed to "dumbing down" children. Shujaa (1994), building on the classic work of Carter Woodson (1933), considers the paradox of "too much schooling, too little education" for Black Americans. From Bowers' (1995) ecological perspective, "[u]nintelligent behavior would be seen as any behavior, way of thinking, and moral judgement that degrades the environment" (p. 132). These and other works raise questions about theories that talk of intelligence that do not address stupidity. Fixating on assessment of musical intelligence, coupled with venerating the OWM musical canon, obscures or avoids the more politically and socially significant questions of why many people cannot participate in musicking in their lives. For education based on multiple intelligence to be meaningful and just, it would need to take into account what might be called "multiple stupidities."
What I am calling musical stupidity comes in many shapes and forms and has been observed by others. For example, based on decades of teaching Afro-Latin musical praxis to college students, Keil (1990 and 1998) tentatively identified what he calls the "seven incapacities, blocks or obstacles" to participating in musical cultures and developing full musical expression, which includes pathological behaviors such as uncoordination, lack of entrainment, visual dependency, and gender distortion. Building on Keil's work, Allen Farmello (1997) gave a paper at a popular music conference on the five discourses that block children from learning music and hinder good musicking, which are: inherent talent, musical intelligence, virtuosity obsession, literacy training, and the professional-amateur discourse. Whether we refer to them as incapacities, obstacles, or hindrances, they are worth exploring in some detail within the context of musical intelligence.
For many students lack coordination is a major obstacle to good musicking. A surprising number of young adults, who may be avid consumers of music, are unable to maintain even a rudimentary steady beat with their hands and feet, much less tap and clap the multiple rhythms necessary for Afro-Latin musics. Keil suggests that this may be because no one ever asked students to keep steady time, that it did not dawn on teachers to ask them. This reflects the OWM bias of music education, teaching students to listen and analyze. Keil found that students who have trouble with drumming are "unentrained," that is, they are unable to synchronize their movements with others. Following the insights of quantum mechanics and cybernetics, as developed in the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1983), entrainment in music means "getting into the groove." Keil noticed that some students can groove alone, but not in groups, while others can groove in groups but not alone.
In any case, sustained entrainment seems necessary for good musicking. Being self-conscious overlaps with coordination and entrainment, which points to teaching methods and classroom ecologies as somewhat controllable variables. Keil noticed that some students got worse when he offered help, while others got worse when he praised them. Since this is a function of classroom ecology, he suggests keeping the focus on the group and working with individuals outside the group setting. Like the other stupidities, being self-conscious is a learned behavior, ingrained by early adulthood, and resulting from insufficient socialization. Visual dependency appears to be a key obstacle to good drumming, especially in students who have learned music notation and feel insecure learning without a notated score. The visual focus on the score as "the music" has incapacitated people who, in another context, may be competent and even brilliant musicians. Keil suggests that "in a society where 'seeing is believing' in print or on television, there may be a shadow of unreliability to contend with whenever people are interacting with sound and action toward a goal of cohesion" (1998, p. 40).
The fifth obstacle to good musicking is over-specialization. This is especially apparent when people who may have achieved a degree of competence on one instrument try to learn another instrument, or in attempting to learn across styles and in different cultural contexts. As Keil puts it, "things already learned are in the way of new learning." Keil found that gender distortion is a thread running through the first five incapacities, with men and women reacting differently as they encounter and try to deal with the other obstacles to good drumming. As McClusky (1990) suggests, the "politics of vision" may alienate, not only promote, learning in a group setting, especially in the context of the male gaze objectifying women, and notes that teachers can pay attention to the differences and similarities between looking and listening. Keil’s seventh incapacity stems from students being "hyper-cultured," referring to the years spent listening to commodified and mediated musics that may have developed an aesthetic, "a definition of good music, that may not let them grasp the subtleties of timing when it comes to drumming with others" (1998, p. 40).
Though he urges more research into these areas, I think Keil’s incapacities suggest a framework for talking about what I would call "musical stupidity." However, I also agree with Keil that these are "analytically abstractable aspects," that they are not inborn or somehow coded in our being, but that they are intertwined with alienation from our bodies, each other, nature, and musicking, and that, in the end, the "seven stupidities" are socially constructed and therefore socially solvable. Shorn of the proclivity to rank people in social hierarchies, stupidity is actually generative of meaningful questions and serves as a useful heuristic for understanding and action. Along those lines, I would also add an eighth stupidity, which arises in cross-cultural and intercultural situations. For example, when Mozart memorized Allegri’s Miserere, he basically "removed" the piece from its sanctuary in a chapel, which Gardner (1997, p. 55) hails as a legendary feat, but which could also be seen as an act of "stupidity," given the reverence accorded to the work by its protectors.
The same point is more apparent in cross-cultural situations. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists often proceed from their own cultural stupidity to gain cross-cultural insights that are respectful of indigenous knowledge. While doing research with Yemeni musicians, Schuyler (1990) tried to perform a classical Turkish instrumental piece, which turned out to be a stupid thing to do in a cultural setting that valued vocal music over instrumental music, but which led to insights into indigenous performance practice. When Feld was busying himself with categorizing birds in the Bosavi rainforest and trying to get a handle on indigenous taxonomies, his Kaluli interlocutor reminded him that "to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest" (1982, p. 45), which led Feld to the realization of indigenous natural history as part of a cultural system that integrated birds, weeping, and song into forms of expression. As these examples suggest, research across cultures is about identifying and remediating our own stupidities. The colonial imperative ignores this, and instead presses other cultures into service to verify or extend Western understandings of how the world works.
Another aspect of this issue, which is relevant to our discussion, has been addressed by Small (1980, p. 36). In an attempt to broaden horizons to accepting and exploring musicking outside the West, Small recommends rejecting a number of cultural assumptions. With apologies, I think it fair to term these "stupidities" as well, given the heuristic I am trying to develop here, since without rejecting or rethinking these assumptions (incidentally, there are seven of them), we risk the danger of reproducing Western norms as universals. Here they are:
1) music as a self contained art, to be contemplated for its own sake;2) musical compositions as abstract entities, which can be communicated from performer to audience;3) harmony and counterpoint are the supreme expressions of human musicking;4) pitch as more important than timbre and texture as structural elements;5) normalization of an impoverished sense of rhythm;6) music is linear and teleological;7) reliance on formalized structure to maintain a sense of time and space.
Normalizing these Western cultural peculiarities excludes "deviations," which in this case includes most other musicking on the planet. To build and implement a theory of musical intelligence that does not take into critical consideration one's own cultural norms (and deviations) borders on white supremacy and cultural imperialism. It is also patently unfair to foist such a narrow and exclusive view of music on students in the name of education and individually centered schooling given a culturally plural and diverse society. Normalizing the narrow modern Western notion of music is also connected to various performance pathologies, which again returns us to the previous set of "musical stupidities."
While the enumeration and description of musical stupidities might increase ad absurdum, they can open a useful dialogue to uncover the flip side of musical intelligence, which allows us to talk about the powers and processes that get intertwined with learning good musicking, either as a performer or as an observer. The concept of musical stupidity can serve the useful function of complicating and complimenting musical intelligence. In Hall's (1983) work on "out of awareness culture," he identifies three levels of culture, one of which he terms "primary culture." In primary culture, norms are known and obeyed by all, but are not stated and occur "out of awareness." His research on out-of-awareness culture includes detailed study of films depicting human interaction, and one theory Hall supports is that meaningful out-of-awareness human interaction is made up of microtimed phenomena, visible only when the films are slowed down. Hall is convinced that these primary level ways of interacting can be completely different from culture to culture, and he calls this out-of-awareness microtimed human interaction "entrainment."
Viewing his work in terms of positive implications, Hall sees a certain urgency in engaging primary-level culture, suggesting that if human beings don't spend more time figuring out how entrainment works (and doesn't work), then there is going to be a lot more intolerance and destruction in the world. If Keil is right about his students being unentrained and that some form of entrainment is necessary for good musicking, then Hall's work might be suggesting that a lack of entrainment in musicking is indicative of larger cultural problems that extend beyond musicking. This suggests that one way to become entrained, to "get into the groove," whether with Yemenis, or birds, or each other, is to promote ways of musicking that are independent of the elite Western culture-bound proclivities that Gardner seems to favor in his rather ungroovy notion of musical intelligence.
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[This essay was originally published in Multiple Intelligences Reconsidered, edited by Joe L. Kincheloe (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004, pp. 49-69). It brings together my interest in ethnomusicology with that of schooling and education, and was written while teaching in the School of Education at Brooklyn College in the City University of New York. The late Joe Kincheloe was also on the faculty, and he invited me to contribute the chapter on music to a book critiquing the theory of multiple intelligences. I pored over several of the initial books by Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences and noticed consistent patterns toward what I later formulated as the Eurocentric and class-based biases in his work. To help me formulate a response to those biases, I brought into the conversation the work of C. A. Bowers on ecological education, as well as insights from my previous work with Charlie Keil. I also drew upon my studies in ethnomusicology to point out that, while what Gardner is saying might have some credence in the limited world of Western art music, there were multiple worlds of music out there and in the end the theory of multiple intelligences was culture bound and, owing to its universalist pretentions and Harvard pedigree, was part of a colonising discourse. This latter point would inform my subsequent work, particularly that which was developed through my affiliation with Multiversity.]