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On IQ and the Traditional Theories of Intelligence

On IQ and the Traditional View of Intelligence:

Note: This is part two of a series of articles that examine the relationship between music and the brain by integrating scholarly work on the philosophy of music with research in the psychology of emotion and intelligence. Part two examines the traditional view of intelligence, IQ and what it means to be smart. All parts can be read independently, though they may make references to other parts. Please click here for an overall abstract and links to other articles in the series.

Table of Contents


Until now, most schools in most cultures have stressed a certain combination of linguistic and logical intelligences. Beyond question that combination is important for mastering the agenda of school, but we have gone too far in ignoring the other intelligences. [1]

— Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind

To understand the nature of intelligence and its importance to musical study, there are two matters that need to be addressed. First we must examine the most commonly held view of intelligence, and, second, we must explore why it is that recent psychological research suggests that this view is too limited. This article looks into the traditional view, which holds that linguistic, mathematical, and logical reasoning are the core capacities of intelligence. The next article will consider the possibility that there are other central factors involved in the function of intelligence that are not so well understood or recognized as these three traditional core capacities. This analysis is vitally important to this study overall because it is through the expansion of the traditional view of intelligence that the importance of music to the life of the mind can be clearly established.

The most direct route to understanding the traditional view of intelligence lies in a consideration of the educational philosophies that guide the practice of the educational system. In American society, school, as the primary institution for the development of intelligence, has a profound effect on the general population’s conception of it.[2] Indeed, school is often the only formal influence many people ever encounter on the subject. Therefore, an understanding of the philosophical beliefs about intelligence that underlie the educational system leads rather directly to an understanding of the most generally accepted view of intelligence.

What is intelligence?

What is intelligence?

The Centrality of Mathematical and Linguistic Reasoning

In order to get at the conceptions of intelligence that guide education we must look at the details of its practice. Howard Gardner points out in his analysis of educational practice, The Unschooled Mind, that the development of notational sophistication (facility with written language or the symbols of mathematics, for example) is a focus of almost every formalized educational system across time and culture.[3] To this primary educational focus, he adds two more: a focus on developing an understanding of concepts within various valued disciplines (science, mathematics, English), and a focus on developing facility with the forms of exposition and reasoning within those valued disciplines.[4]

Considering these three foci of modern education, it is clear how certain aspects of the educational system have developed to the present. Almost all classes are divided according to their respective disciplinary interests: algebra, physics, art, English composition, United States history, and so on. The classes themselves are set up to introduce the students to the various relevant facts, concepts and understandings of these subjects and to advance the students notational proficiencies. Within almost every class, by far the most common notational medium dealt with is written language followed closely by the use of mathematics. In fact, these two notational systems are used so heavily that they are the only notational systems to have a series of required courses specifically designated for their development. Thus, from the outset, this suggests that linguistic and mathematical forms of reasoning are central to the educational system’s conception of intelligence.


The Philosophical Foundations of Education

To understand more precisely how this plays out we must take a look at the most prevalent educational philosophy in the American school system today—Essentialism.[5] Understanding essentialism, however, begins with the consideration of the older educational philosophy from which it sprang--Perennialism. Perennialism’s philosophy is based on time-tested truths, rational thinking, permanence, order, and certainty. In particular, perennialism feels quite strongly that rationality lies at the center of what human beings are. Thus, perennialism considers mathematics, language, history, logic, and science—the domains of human interest most strongly allied with rational thought and argument—to be of the most importance. Its instructional methodology involves a strongly didactic approach in which the educator is seen as being in possession of various facts and understandings that must be passed on to his students. Educational experiences such as lecture, text readings, skill coaching and Socratic dialogue (asking leading questions to move towards conceptual discussions of specific subjects) are common in this approach. The approach is favored because it tends to lead to content knowledge and familiarity with conceptual arguments. The forms of assessment used in the perennialist philosophy focus on testing the students’ grasp of this material with such measures as standardized, objective testing and essay questions.[6]

The vast majority of these perennialist beliefs are shared directly by essentialism. Essentialism maintains the same methodological focuses on didactic teaching, the same emphasis on the primacy of rational thought, and the same forms of assessment. Where Essentialism diverges from perennialism is in its wider curricular focus. Essentialism adds technology, social science, the arts, and foreign language to the perennialists’ curricular list of mathematics, language, history, science, and logic.[7

Mathematical & Linguistic Processing

Mathematical & Linguistic Processing

Keeping in mind Gardner’s three primary focuses of modern schools (including developing notational proficiency, developing familiarity with concepts in valued disciplines, and developing facility with the various forms of argument and exposition within those valued disciplines), one can see how essentialism fits quite well. The curricular interests of essentialism define what the chosen ‘valued disciplines’ are. Its didactic instructional methods make conceptual understanding, as well as argument and exposition, central to learning, and its traditional, test-based assessment preferences reemphasize its focus on conceptual knowledge and logical argument while at the same time placing a paramount importance on linguistic and mathematical notational proficiencies. Thus, what is valued as central to the work of intelligence begins to become clear.

The fact that essentialism places linguistic, mathematical, and rationalistic forms of thinking at the center of intellectual development in all of its curricular subjects cannot be overemphasized. It points directly to the underlying belief in essentialism that in order to really understand anything, one must have access to a store of factual information about it and be able to conceptualize about it. With this belief in place, one can easily see how rational, analytical thinking is held up by essentialists to be at the center of intellectual development. In the eyes of the essentialist, then, efficient rational thinking in linguistic and mathematical forms is intelligence.

The IQ Test

The IQ Test

The IQ Test

The broad acceptance of this view of intelligence can be grasped by taking a look at the most well-known and accepted manifestation of it, the IQ test. In the early twentieth century, Alfred Binet devised the first intelligence test in France. The purpose of this original test was to assess the academic profile of students so that educators could place them in the appropriate level in school. Binet’s idea of testing intelligence caught on very quickly and was soon developed into the full-fledged Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test which is so familiar today.[8] In its present form, the test is still used for the placement of students in school, but it has also taken on a much more profound meaning. In the minds of many, the IQ test measures not only an individual’s academic potential, but also that individual’s potential for success in the larger world. Gardner suggests that the presence of this point of view is so dominant that most people believe that “. . . we individuals can in fact be rank-ordered in terms of our God-given intellect or IQ. So entrenched is this way of thinking—and talking—that most of us lapse readily into rankings of individuals as more or less ‘smart,’ ‘bright,’ ‘clever,’ or ‘intelligent.’”[9]

The IQ test, then, is often considered to be a good measure of not only a given individual’s scholastic intelligence, but his general potential as well. What the IQ test actually measures, however, are only the specific skills and conceptual understandings focused on in school, specifically the understandings of rational thinking, language, and mathematics discussed earlier. By viewing the IQ test as not only a good predictor of school success, but of life success as well, one embraces a philosophy that suggests that both are defined exclusively by one’s potential with the academics found in school. Rational thought, then, is equated to intelligence, which is thought to determine one’s overall human potential. Essentially, this is the perception of intelligence that is held and promoted by the educational system and the society at large today.

In the next segment, we will examine emergent problems with this traditional view of intelligence.

End Notes

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[1] Howard Gardner, Unschooled Mind, 81.

[2] Howard Gardner, in The Unschooled Mind, points out that this is not necessarily the case in all cultures. Though present in most cultures to some degree, formal education is often totally absent in more primitive cultures which rely on more informal methods of education such as direct observation and apprenticeships.

[3] This would explain why formalized education is rare in primitive cultures which often do not have a sophisticated notational system to master.

[4] Gardner, Unschooled Mind, 129–132.

[5] Gerald L Gutek, Philosophical and Ideological Perspectives on Education, 2nd ed. (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1997), 264.

[6] Summary of Perennialist ideas comes from Victor L. Dupuis, James A. Johnson, Diann Musial, Gene E. Hall, and Donna M. Gollnick, Introduction to the Foundations of American Education, 11th ed. (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1999), 388–390.

[7] Victor L. Dupuis, James A. Johnson, Diann Musial, Gene E. Hall, and Donna M. Gollnick, 390–392.

[8] Howard Gardner, Frames Of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 2nd ed. (New York, New York: BasicBooks, 1983), 15–16.

[9] Ibid., 7.

Series Abstract

Important efforts in recent musical research have been devoted to exploring how music affects intellectual processing, the emotions and personality. Most of these efforts have been focused on exploring music’s effect on the neurology of the brain and its possible contributions to development in other non-musical domains such as language or mathematics. Much of this research is, by necessity, very specific and of a limited focus. A broader understanding of the positive results of music study can now be established, however, by synthesizing the theories of musical meaning provided by music philosophy and new psychological research on the nature of intelligence and emotion. This synthesis reveals that studying music has demonstrable holistic benefits on cognitive processing, emotional fluency and character development.

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Part I: On the Psychology of Intelligence

Music & The Brain

Music & The Brain


Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on February 27, 2012:

Looking forward to it!

wayseeker (author) from Colorado on February 27, 2012:


My thanks for taking the time to read. Over the course of the next several segments of this study, I go into the psychological work of those who have noticed just what you are talking about and have, therefore, attempted to adjust their understanding of intelligence. IQ and creativity are far more subtle and complex than what popular culture would have us accept. Children with autism, such as those you describe, are one example among many that exemplify this reality.

Thanks for taking an interest! The next segment will be along soon!


wayseeker (author) from Colorado on February 27, 2012:


Thanks so much for taking the time to read this. Intelligence is a far broader idea than what popular culture accepts, and I fully agree with your comments. I only wish that those who have the power to make significant changes in our systems (government and education) would take this seriously and act on it instead of chasing test scores. Oh well...those of us who see it must just do what we can where we can.

Thanks again,


Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on February 27, 2012:

This is a well-documented hub on the traditional views of intelligence. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Children with autism often have a high IQ and yet find communication difficult. I look forward to the next segment on the emergent problems. Voted up and interesting.

SopranoRocks from Upper Peninsula, Michigan, USA on February 27, 2012:

Very informative HUB - is first one I read this morning and it got my brain working right away (without coffee)!

I have always valued learning both basic curriculum and creative outlets. They go hand-in-hand in creating our intelligence and rationality and, most evidently, our personalities. Having lost some of my short-term memory since my late 20s, I have a hard time with the cognitive skills and knowledge I feel I have lost and cannot grasp fully. Knowledge in any form is so important in so many aspects of not only society but also the way we feel about ourselves and interact with others.

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