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Music and me, Part 1: musical thinking

April 15, 2010

I’d meant to write about this for a while, but got a push from reading Amanda’s Why I almost didn’t paint. We seem to be on similar wavelengths lately, anyway. 🙂

I am still finding this hard to write about, there are so many raw emotions involved. I’m not sure how to approach the subject. This post (barely) started yesterday, but I quickly distracted myself with some other writing. That’s how raw it is.

It looks like it’ll be a good idea to split this one into two parts, long as it’s turning out. The organization should work better that way, too.

My relationship with music is very complicated indeed. I was going to say that I love music, but that isn’t a great description. It’s also not unusual for me to have anxiety attacks when trying to produce music.

By “love”, what I was really trying to say is that I have always lived in music. It’s everywhere, and everything is part of it.

When I looked into Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, I was less than surprised to find that my preferred styles of thinking were described about equally well by his Musical/Rhythmic and Naturalistic categories. I vaguely remembered this from poking at a quiz years ago, and got a bit sidetracked by it today!

From one description (ignoring the woo and capitalization):

“Musical Intelligence or Music Smart” as Howard Gardner puts it, are “learners who think in music.” They not only hear patterns but are good at recognizing them. For them music is present everywhere and in everything. These types of learners display sensitivity to rhythm, music, tones and pitch. Their auditory skills are high. They are able to sing, compose, play instruments. They would often learn using songs and rhythm, and would often perform their best with music playing in the background. They also have a strong sense of universal harmony and awareness of patterns in life. Not just sounds emanating from musical instruments are music, but other things like a Flowing River, Chirping Birds, A Saw moving on a Log of Wood, A chisel on a Stone all are music for students as there would be a rhythm, a pattern in the sound.

I was going to describe a lot of this stuff myself, but these descriptions do it more succinctly. 😉

On the woo front, I am more put off by some of the descriptions there (“universal harmony”?! “Have a tendency of being very spiritual”?!) than by what the author seems to be trying to say. Perceiving interconnected patterns is one thing, interpreting that as “very spiritual” quite another. It’s very wooly. Even if this kind of thing has very strongly influenced my ideas about how the world works, including my “spirituality”.

I figured out on my own that my best hope of memorizing a lot of things is to set them to music–usually composed on the fly, sometimes as a memorably hideous filk. Music is also involved in how I store and retrieve information, including as part of a shortcut indexing system.

I’ve only heard similar mental structures described by someone on a rather cringeworthy program about “savants” (egads, how I dislike the way that gets used); the specifics are different, but what I do is similar. Doing a quick search, I’m not sure if this is the same guy, but Alexis Lemaire describes his this way:

Lemaire explains that what he does is about transforming raw numbers into other structures so he can “see” the answer to the problem.

“When I think of numbers sometimes I see a movie, sometimes sentences. I can translate the numbers into words. This is very important for me. The art is to convert memory chunks into some kind of structure.

“I see images, phrases, actions. It’s very tactile, sensitive. I have these associations between places and numbers. Some places are imaginary, I try to vary so I don’t confuse the numbers. It’s important to memorise. I have to be precise.”

Lemaire’s explanation is similar to that of British savant Daniel Tammet. Tammet set the world record for reciting pi at more than 22,000 digits at the museum in 2004.

To him, each number has a distinct colour and appearance, some beautiful, some not, with each complex calculation making up a landscape.

I think it was Daniel Tammet I saw before; Lemaire’s description sounds a lot closer to what I do, though. 🙂 I had no idea this sort of thing was considered unusual, but apparently so.

My further comments on the Multiple Intelligence thing had been relegated to a mini sub-post in the endnotes, but since I’m splitting this up, I’ll bring it up here. (I’ve already done so with a couple of things, and hope the way I’ve pasted it together makes sense!)

I didn’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, since this post started out about music. But, so far, I have found the Multiple Intelligences concept more useful to describe types of thinking and learning, rather than areas of ability which can be developed. That is probably the case, but here I’m applying Gardner’s ideas in a descriptive sense.

BTW, I haven’t read much of Gardner’s actual work so far, but I was irked at the way other people, at any rate, persist in lumping “visual” and “spatial” together. (I don’t know to what extent he did this.) Some stereotypes aside, I am not a visual thinker, but do a lot of a similar kind of spatial thinking to what Amanda (again 🙂 ) describes here. It’s hard to separate the “naturalistic”-described stuff from that; it’s all about patterns and “shapes”. It’s really hard to describe in words.

In fact, on assessment, verbal/linguistic thinking came in third. I strongly suspect that a lot of the wordplay, enjoyment of word games, attention to word usage and grammar, and the like there have more to do with the other styles of thinking mentioned here than with what they’re presumed to indicate. Words have “shapes”, and language has always felt rather like a clumsy emulation mode to me. People have also tended to encourage me more strongly in this direction, presumably because it’s a widely recognized and valued skill set. It makes sense that trying to rely heavily on this would break down more if (a) it’s not my biggest strength, and (b) what looks like verbal ability may not be, in some cases (lots of room for confirmation bias there, too).

For anyone who’s interested in playing with online assessments, a couple I thought were decent are here (HTML) and here (Flash). Here are links to a lot more.

My scores on both were similar; the first one gave me (out of 5): Naturalist 4.86, Musical 4.57, Linguistic 4, Intrapersonal 3.14, Logic/Math 2.71, Kinesthetic 2.71, Interpersonal 2.29, Spatial 2.

I also have problems with the conflation of (more linear approaches to) logic and math, besides the way dyscalculia can skew things; a little better differentiation between concepts and calculations would be good there! The “naturalistic” category requires a lot of a slightly different approach to logic. Reading descriptions of this helped at least one baffling “oh, but she’s a natural scientist!” discussion (between a biology teacher and my mother) make more sense. Looking at the patterns, I try to figure out how things fit together, and how they work. That’s kinda what I do.

Both of these descriptions of styles of thinking are mostly about patterns and sensory perceptions. Not surprisingly, to me they’re parts of the same pattern, along with the not-so-visual spatial approach.

I was also unsurprised to run across another piece drawing from the linked article, “Naturalist” Intelligence: Another Name for Autistic Thinking?. That’s certainly not the case for everybody, but it does seem to describe a particular subset of people who get called autistic. As Leslie Owen Wilson put it in the first linked article, “I can only venture a guess that eventually the descriptions of this intelligence will relate to sites of the brain responsible for recognizing patterns, for making subtle connections, and to those areas responsible for acute sensory perceptions, and to sites related to object discrimination and classification.”

I was also somewhat interested in seeing another of her comments: “An example of cultural groups possessing and valuing this form of intelligence are many Native American Tribes and Aboriginal Peoples.” That agrees with some of my observations of how differently things can be interpreted. Yeah, I do it more than most people, but it didn’t stand out as a particularly weird way of thinking and looking at things other than in school; I also got a lot of encouragement in nature and animal-related interests. Some of my favorite memories from when I was little came from various adults taking me out in the woods or down by a river or creek and showing me stuff/explaining things.

Then there’s Enhanced pitch sensitivity in individuals with autism: a signal detection analysis, and the ever-popular “musical savants”. (‘A subset of individuals with autism, known as “musical savants,” is also known to possess absolute pitch.’) Oh my. Can I pass on that one?

On a related “naturalistic” note, I was struck by the rightness of one observation from Thomas Armstrong, on neurodiversity (I haven’t read any of his other stuff):

The Human Brain Works More Like an Ecosystem than a Machine. Up until now, the most often used metaphor to refer to the brain has been a computer (or some other type of machine). However, the human brain isn’t hardware or software, it’s wetware. The characterization of the brain as an unbelievably intricate network of ecosystems is much closer to the truth than that of a complex machine. We should devise a discourse that better reflects this new conception of the brain.

An ecosystem of sorts really does look like a more helpful model.

A couple of other headings there, which reflect things I’ve been writing about here: “Human Competence is Defined by the Values of the Culture to Which You Belong” and “Whether You are Regarded As Disabled or Gifted Depends Largely on When and Where You Were Born”.

How the musical thinking has worked out in my life so far (hint: it’s not so “savant”-looking) will wait for the second part.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 8:33 pm

    This is great.. Thank you for it.. 😀 Can’t wait for the second part

  2. April 15, 2010 9:28 pm

    The visual/spatial lumping bugs me too, for essentially the opposite reason.

    I have a highly visual memory, almost photographic at times; I can remember details most people wouldn’t notice about the appearance of things, and I can also recall exactly where on a page I saw something.

    And yet? The visual part of my memory is not spatial at all. I have a difficult time translating between 2D maps and the 3D world. I get environments that are distinctive spatially, but similar in color/texture/etc., mixed up (just for one example, I’ve gotten intersections confused for one another because they both had identical-looking grocery stores or pharmacies on them). Without landmarks to distinguish places, I tend to be totally lost.

    It’s almost like my mental map is more like the design of the old computer game Myst– a bunch of still frames connected with ‘if you go here, then you’ll be at this frame’ transitions. Which is enough to deceive people into thinking it’s an actual 3-dimensional map, but it isn’t– as becomes apparent when I approach a landmark from the opposite direction of my mental image!

    In general, I think my brain’s way of thinking is heavily based on connections rather than spatial relations. Sort of like vertices and edges in a graph, if you take the graph and throw away the spatial aspects.

  3. April 16, 2010 1:03 am

    I linked to one of the online tests you suggested. I think the results did come fairly close for me. But,

    1. I, too, don’t think visual skills and spatial skills should be conflated. I don’t have anything resembling the photographic memory that codeman has, but my visual memory is still largely okay. And because my spatial sense and sense of direction is weak, I do depend heavily on visually recognizing landmarks to know where I am. As with codeman, approaching a familiar location from a very unfamiliar direction tends to confuse me simply because I’m then seeing everything from a completely different visual angle. I also usually prefer to learn how to navigate in a new location several times during daylight hours before the first time I try to navigate there after dark because then things look so very different. Plus, landmarks that I may have been using during the day are harder to see until you’re right up close.

    2. I notice that the on-line test I used had one question that seems to conflate sense of pitch with sense of rhythm in the same question. This annoyed me. I’m deaf so I don’t have much pitch sense anyway (though still more than my mother, who is hearing but who says that all music sounds like noise to her — I actually listen to and enjoy music a lot more than she does). But I suspect that even if I were fully hearing my sense of pitch might still be weak. On the few occasions when I have tried to listen to music and sort of gesture with my hand when and in what direction the pitch changes, people told me that I was sometimes gesturing in the opposite direction from the pitch (for example, the pitch might switch from a higher note to a lower note but I would guess it was going in the opposite direction).

    HOWEVER, although my sense of pitch may be off even accounting for the fact that I don’t hear it as well or as clearly as hearing people, I DO have a good sense of rhythm. I not only hear rhythm in music but also see rhythm in things like the way that leaves in the trees rustle when a breeze stirs them. It has always perplexed me that some hearing people seem to conceive of rhythm as being so tightly bound only to music that they can’t conceive of rhythm that can also be VISUAL as well. And I don’t think that I see rhythm just because I’m deaf. It’s just so glaringly obvious to me that rhythm is auditory AND visual. And could easily be tactile as well — I don’t really tend to pay as much attention to that form of rhythm but I can conceive of it. And certainly kinesthetic / bodily (think of dancing). I think it’s just an innate thing to me to sense rhythm around me, not all the time but frequently.

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