Five Minds and Music

I will often search for a memorable, ‘accessible’ and somewhat ‘inspiring’ quote to act as an epigraph for my end-of-year school magazine article (yes, it’s that time of year again already!). The theme I went with to encapsulate 2015 was, basically, that ‘musicking’ activates many facets of our ‘mind’ – that when we ‘music’, we realise deep cognitive connections.

The quote I used this year was from our dear friend, and great supporter of music, Plato:

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm … to life and to everything.

I hesitated. The use of Plato’s thoughts to justify ‘why’ music education is important is becoming, quite frankly, a little tiresome and somewhat lacking in inspiration. They are ‘wheeled out’ too often, quickly becoming predictable, hard to ‘pin down’ tangibly… even a little ‘frilly’. They are the types of quotes that when appended in the signature of an email from a colleague, I cringe and shudder. This is not to say that I don’t agree with the sentiment – far from it – but perhaps we need to frame these ‘frilly’ quotes in more realistic ways? How does music do the things Plato claims?

I went with it, and I did so because I was quite attracted to potential connectivity of this quote to the theme of ‘mind’. In particular, I liked that, in Plato’s view, music ‘gives wings to the mind’ and ‘flight to the imagination’. Drawing upon multiple cognitions, the mind-broadening ability of music is a powerful one, if harnessed correctly. There are many demands placed on us cognitively when we engage with music, and to truly ‘soar’ we need to consider and be active in many types of ‘mind’.

Enter the influential Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I am sure we’ve all come across Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences[1]. I encountered it in my undergraduate degree and it has since ‘peppered’ many curriculum documents. I won’t unpack the theory in any depth here (or really at all), but essentially it proposes that, as the title of the book suggests, we have multiple intelligences that span many domains – musical intelligence is one of then – but they all interact and contribute to the ‘intelligence’ of our mind. I fear, however, like Plato’s, that Gardner’s ‘intelligences’ have been somewhat ‘hijacked’, even ‘misappropriated’. I’ve witnessed teachers ‘peg’ students to work within a single domain, such is their perceived intelligence! In my view, it takes many unique parts to make an interesting whole (this is Gardner’s idea of a ‘profile of intelligences’), and I think it is our business as teachers to challenge students to think in different ways – to strengthen weaker areas; to access different ‘minds’… anyway, before I stray too far…

In a later work[2], Gardner proposed ‘five minds for the future’ (as the book is also titled) that he proposes will enable us to thrive in a complex and ever-changing world. These ‘minds’ are:

  • the disciplined mind
  • the synthesising mind
  • the creating mind
  • the respectful mind, and
  • the ethical mind

As I was writing the school magazine article, and as I reflected on the activities and experiences the students engaged with over the year, I found evidence of these types of ‘minds’ being trained as they worked musically. Briefly, this is how I saw it…

Music demands that we be disciplined if we are to achieve anything of significance within its complex realm. The disciplined mind, Gardner states, works steadily over time to improve a skill or understanding. The discipline of music learning is positioned as central to our curriculum at school, though it can be a hard sell at times – sometimes we feel as if we make such little progress, or we take such small steps forward that they are almost unperceivable. It has been said that it can take up to10 years to truly master a discipline, though I am not sure that that is really enough time! I am well over 10 years into my discipline and feel like I am going backward! The discipline music offers and encourages is something that we should celebrate – it enables us to move forward in meaningful ways.

Music requires that we synthesise. We consider and assemble many parts – not just musical ones, but social, physical, and emotional/‘spiritual’ ones too – potentially disparate sources. These parts are merged (hopefully) into meaningful and purposeful performances, compositions and musicological discoveries. Through this there is ‘sense-making’ – for us, and of others, as well as between us. This is a very high-level cognition, though I feel that we work in this domain when we ‘music’, irrespective of where we are on our journey.

Like Gardner suggests, the creative mind builds from discipline and synthesis. With these minds as a platform – our focus on forging knowing ‘in’ the craft, and the consideration of many different parts – we may be lucky enough to approach ‘being creative’. Music education, importantly, gives this creativity a voice and a platform upon which we can share our ideas. When we create we arrive at something new, and this something new is built from knowledge of the subject matter and perhaps new ways of assembling it: a new style, a new technique, a new solution to a music problem (of our own or shared by others). We explore, we aim to stay a step ahead of what might be predictable. Many of us are searching for something new musically – even those who replicate music of the past bring new life to it.

Music demands that we are respectful when we work musically and learn about the differences between our cultures and that of another. It encourages us to work with and welcome differences between individuals and groups, and it encourages us to come to understand them. In the classroom, an awareness-raising of different types and functions of music works towards this, and in putting this to practice we can engage and begin to comprehend the significance of music in others’ worlds.

Finally, music encourages that we ponder the ethics of our actions and how the nature of musical work can improve the society we live in, and how we then act on this for the betterment of our society. The sharing of musical performances to different audiences and for different purposes, and the creation of a piece of work to comment on and potentially improve a social situation, is what this might look like in practice. There is ethical significance in music making.

Obviously, this is a very compact view of Gardner’s ‘minds’ – and I do hope that I have not pulled them too far from their original intent – but I feel strongly that music education connects to each and has the potential to make us all (students and teachers) into better individuals who think, feel and act in ways that enrich us and those around us. Like the multiple intelligences, these ‘minds’ do not work in isolation – they are activated (hopefully) simultaneously, perhaps at different levels at different times. I feel that music education encourages and supports the development of many types of ‘minds’, and I feel there is more than enough evidence of this occurring in our little school in our corner of the world. We do have a long way to go too, though.

In framing my magazine article with this theme, I aimed to show our school community that music offers much more than one might think. I hope that the article made clear the far-reaching influence that music has on the development of the ‘whole’ mind. Even if students do not make a career out of music, I am confident that in exercising these ‘minds’, some residue of meaning and significance will be left with them; something that can be taken beyond the grounds of the school and used to better the society we live in. Music education has much to offer our ‘five minds’, and I will continue to consider these thoughts between the school years.


[1] Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

[2] Gardner, H. (2008). Five minds for the future. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

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