Acoustics Matters #3

Musical Intelligence


Brian Maskell, Ambience Systems, New Zealand

I have had “occasion to imagine that matters that may enter the human mind were interrelated in the same fashion”. Rene Descartes, mathematician (1596 – 1650)

Once upon a time, many decades ago, I became much involved in ‘think-tanks’ – strange devices comprising of very bright people of very diverse disciplines from which small groups could be formed to create new ‘opportunity spaces’ – for just about anything.

It was a time when the Cold War dominated much of the priority setting in Western governments – and, consequently, large slices of public expenditure were involved. 

Thus, it was a priority to focus good minds on making sure that defence policy directions and initiatives adopted would prevail advantageously for some time.

Such a strategic focus on defence initiatives spawned many technologies and systems attractive to re-writing the tools used in the civilian world.

At that time, one of the large think-tanks in Europe specialised in mainly civilian work – the ‘technology-transfer game’, if you like.

It encountered a bit of bump when a large group of its key players left and formed a competitive entity. 

With some background in helping to give birth to a defence think-tank, I was engaged to help to identify and rectify any problems that had precipitated that break-away problem in the predominantly civilian think-tank.

Orchestrated good minds

To do my job, I had to get to know many of the people very well. 

To function effectively in a top-end think-tank requires a special type of person: someone who is at the top of commanding a particular discipline (e.g. applied mathematics) but who is also able to ‘couple’ readily with other disciplines (e.g. human learning, information sciences, physics and chemistry); and a person who is passionate about learning from others while not needing to assert a personal ego.

Working with a small team (usually a core group maximum of five) of such people on a project can be an electrifying experience because minds ‘couple’ with one another to produce a jazz orchestra; people say things that they did not know that they knew (perhaps a synthesis of the drift of a group of minds); initiative in discussion shifts quickly from one to another; and, occasionally, tussles over matters of principle will occur. It is most notable that it is very rare to hear the word ‘I’ or the accusative word ‘you’ during think-tank sessions: the focus is strictly on the issue and related matters. 

However, the outcome from think-tank sessions is cooperative learning at a remarkable pace - plus confidence in a new direction and a list of promising research issues requiring detailed exploration.

What a pity that young minds are not cultivated to learn in a similar way.

There is now strong scientific evidence that our minds are not organised to fit classical Descartes logic of ‘break it up into discrete functional bits’: rather our minds have powerful inter-couplings between parts that tend to render a discrete part as merely a ‘bit-player’. 

Thus, a brain may perhaps be thought of as analogous to components of an orchestra – perhaps a soup of quantum-like coupled-processors.

For example, I know someone very well who – when stimulated by music – ‘sees’ powerful pictures colours and patterns.

Another person that I knew was one of the world’s most experienced pilots of high-performance aircraft: he had an extraordinary ability to focus his mind on the matters at hand; he was also a talented linguist who I would observe often holding teleconference discussions in three different languages at the same time; he was also an amateur musician of some talent.   

Musical trampoline for mind development? 

From my civilian think-tank experience, I was struck by how many of those extraordinary people seemed to be intensely musical in their recreational lives. So I gathered that data out of interest.

Approximately 89 per cent of the think-tank team could be described as ‘intensely musical’; i.e. they either played musical instruments or spent a substantial amount of time listening to music intently - or both.

Curious as to how this figure compared with a representative sample of people on the street at that time I asked an old colleague to do a bit of social research: the result was that circa 17 per cent of people on the street met the same criteria. ‘Not very scientific’ many might reasonably claim: but the crude juxtaposition of the data might be claimed as nevertheless ‘significant’.

Cooperation v. competition

Rendering music is a powerfully cooperative undertaking. An orchestra or chamber group or jazz group attempting to render music in a competitive way would be an amusing – if somewhat sad - experience! 

Yet most of our society has come to be dominated by doctrines such as ‘competitive market forces’ – perhaps because we do not put good brains together to map out directions that make better sense for the survival or our species as an alternative to vacuous doctrines and beliefs. 

Market-forces doctrine leads inevitably to significant market power (SNP) dominance – an economics term.

Thus fat dogs get fatter as they assert SMP over both environmental resources and over those members of their own species who have little or no SNP; perhaps therefore doctrines that precipitate SMP are a terminal prescription for our species?

It might therefore be more productive to recognise that our species evolved successfully because it engaged intelligently with and valued cooperation – not competition.

The intelligences

Where, you might well ask, does musical intelligence fit with the rest of the human intelligences?

The Bernard Van Leer Foundation triggered some in-depth studies – The Project on Human Potential - at Harvard at the beginning of the 1980s in pursuit of a better understanding of the various intelligences for the purpose of aiding peoples’ learning – and particularly for the purpose of aiding the learning of those with learning difficulties.

Musical intelligence

One of the significant findings was that musical intelligence was a primary intelligence; it was at least on an equal footing with mathematical, language, kinaesthetic and the rest of the familiar intelligences. 

Moreover, it seemed that the acquisition of musical intelligence was a valuable pre-cursor to the acquisition of other intelligences. 

Among the findings of the resulting research was that, next to pitch, the most important factor was ‘timbre’ – the detailed nature of the sound. [Here I am reminded of the excitement of hearing, for the first time early this year, reproduction of recorded music in which complex orchestral sounds acquired a realistic ‘texture’ that was at once captivatingly beautiful and realistically convincing (the occasion being the advent of the final commissioning of my Ambience acoustic system driven, with a new order of detail, by the Perreaux 250i).

Another key finding of the Harvard research was that rhythmic factors were a separate class – a class that enabled deaf people to have access to the pleasures of music. (One is also reminded here of the strong links to dance.) 

Composers such as Stravinsky and Scriabin underscored the importance of complex patterns in rhythm – and often the important experience of seeing musicians’ performance to capture their patterned rhythmic movements.

Such factors introduce the topics of timing detail and subtle relative weight between elements in a musical line or phrase. 

I remember well my Matthay-trained teacher of piano driving into my head that the notes and other hints on a musical score were simply a rough indication of the musical experience that they offered: the task was getting the ergonomics of one’s body honed to reproduce the subtle shades of rhythm, texture and detail that would be captivating for a listener. (Some fifty years later, I am still working on that!)

My teacher preferred to select pupils who were studying the sciences, mathematics or other languages – “because they would likely be able to think critically, understand the importance of musical detail and therefore be more rewardingly teachable”. [It is always comforting for musicians to note that some very great mathematicians made minor but catastrophic errors in the detail of some of their equations!]

The Harvard study noted that children commencing normal schooling seem to face a low emphasis (if any at all) on advancement of their musical intelligences. At this stage of transition-to-school the home experiential and learning environment therefore becomes critical as an offset for the learning distortions of normal schooling.

Ukulele Boy

This five-year-old young musician is being brought up to be bi-lingual; he has a razor-sharp critical and observant mind; typically, he listens to questions very critically - then restructures them and gives a considered reply! He has not yet gone to school: most of the available schools have WiFi aerials in each classroom – and a requirement that he has an electronic tablet; does he have a promising future, I wonder?

One finding of the Harvard study was that some cultures do give prominence to childrens’ grasp of music – probably because of its importance for acquiring a brain well-tuned to detail that will assist their future acquisition of survival skills. The study mentioned a tribe known as the Anang of Nigeria where –

Infants scarcely a week old are introduced to music and dancing by their mothers. Fathers fashion small drums. At the age of two, children join groups where they learn singing dancing and playing of instruments. By the age of five, an Anang child can sing hundreds of songs, play several percussion instruments and perform dozens of intricate dance movements. [Abridged.]

How sad that our Western society - for the learning of its children – favours giving them electronic ‘tablets’ and cell phones that cellular biologists know will disrupt materially their cellular physiology because such devices use low-frequency-modulated electromagnetic radiation that will cause their cells to leak out Calcium ions – among other material adverse cellular effects.

Asian countries using Western musical intelligence research

It is an irony that the Chinese and some other Asian countries have embraced the importance of the Western countries’ research on musical intelligence and its importance for learning.

Thus, it is not surprising that these Asian countries are now furnishing some stunning performers of Western music.

However, since the Asians adopted Western music as a very serious component in their educational curriculum, there has been an acceleration of the Asian dominance of the school league tables by countries like China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Together, they sit well-above all the Western countries on the table of results produced by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the educational performance of 15 year old students. [Source OECD table.] 

I wonder if there may be a musical intelligence connection with such stellar Asian educational performance.

Thinking (and listening) critically

Finally, I will be having a word with Father Christmas about furnishing me with a book just written by Amanda Ripley titled The Smartest Kids in the World: and how they got that way, published by Simon and Schuster; 320 pages. 

Amanda travelled the world in search of schools that teach children how to think critically. Apparently, the findings show that the best ones have very little technical gadgetry and are staffed by teachers who are held in high professional regard.

I will be interested to read if there is any correlation with the dimension of musical intelligence.

Meanwhile, justify your top-end HiFi as essential for advancing the family’s musical intelligence and critical-thinking abilities: it is arguably a small price for your family to pay! 

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To those readers who have responded to earlier articles in this series, I thank you. 

It takes many hours to compose each of these articles.

This third article in the series has been purposely controversial and wide-ranging in the hope that it might stimulate more feedback. 

Because of the ‘thin’ feedback to the earlier articles in this series, I am not at all sure that there are many of you who like to read the articles and value their content.

So, if you would like any more articles on similar themes do drop me an email.

Brian MaskellBrian Maskell

Brian studied piano from the age of 4 – eventually taking lessons in the Matthay piano-playing technique from one of the pupils of that great master of tone, detail and technique based on ergonomic principles. As a boy chorister he learned at Canterbury Cathedral voice-production techniques that enable a single solo voice to fill a large venue. At age 11 his legs were long enough to commence his organ studies. 

The very powerful sound of larger instruments and plus the superb choral acoustics that he experienced when he sang in Canterbury Cathedral began his lifetime quest for faithful reproduction of the detail of reflected as well as direct sounds: that quest underpinned and sustained his passion for understanding and mastering the complex physics of recorded sound.

Training in electronics led to involvement with development of advanced military control systems. That led to a period as Technical Editor of a leading journal specialising in complex electronic systems and new materials technologies – and an enduring interest in biophysics, ergonomics and human learning.

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