British Journal of Music Education

How far do tests of musical ability shed light on the nature of musical intelligence?

Christopher Murphy 


This article suggests that traditional conceptions of musical ability, as advanced in the psychometric tradition of psychology, tell us very little about the nature of musical behaviour and how it is developed. The psychometric tradition, with its view that musical ability is innate rather than learned, has exerted a powerful and potentially damaging influence on the practice of music education over the past fifty or so years. It is only relatively recently, mainly in the field of Developmental Psychology, that these ideas have been challenged. In contrasting theories advanced by different psychological schools the article gives a broader perspective to the psychological debate on human intelligence / musical ability and shows the context in which musical behaviour might be viewed as a distinct or even autonomous form of intelligence – a ‘way of knowing’. It suggests that musical thinking should be considered as an ‘intellectual’ as well as aesthetic mode of thought and that musical ability, in the traditional sense, has little educational utility or relevance to music as a curriculum subject in schools.