Musicals: The Multiple Intelligences Way

October 30, 2017

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

Author Keith Mason walking through the woods to publicize a school production.

Once upon a time, a Broadway musical named Into the Woods opened on November 5, 1987, this year marking its thirtieth anniversary. Because musicals can undoubtedly enhance the music and performing arts curriculum, we can use the Multiple Intelligences to help all our students shine. Many high schools and middle schools stage a musical every year; educators can help students gain in depth knowledge by integrating the school musical into classes, rehearsals, recitals, and concerts. Elementary level students can also be included. Examples here of musical activities and projects derive from a school musical integration of Into the Woods, although the ideas outlined can be utilized with other musicals. Into the Woods Jr. is an adaptation designed for younger performers.

Exposing students at a young age to show music and the Great American Songbook will set them up for a lifetime of musicals. Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist of Into the Woods, observed that if children are not exposed to musicals, they will probably not seek them out in adulthood. My exposure to show tunes began when I was a child listening to The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady soundtracks. The film The Sound of Music came at age three and my first Broadway musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, was at age six. The numerous musical plays and films that I have seen have made me a huge fan of musicals and have enriched my life while enhancing my teaching and research career.

The Multiple Intelligences

Back lobby mural closeups of Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

Howard Gardner developed the Multiple Intelligences to allow all learners to be successful.  He found that verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence are highlighted in student learning and assessment, especially in terms of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) testing. This implies that so many students with strengths in areas other than verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical were unable to demonstrate their intelligence through learning activities, assessments, and especially standardized testing. For this reason, Gardner identified the existence of other types of intelligence. 

  • The benefits of exploring musicals using the Multiple Intelligences include:
  • Musicals invite classroom learning using the multiple intelligences
  • School musicals or any musical appropriate to age and maturity level can foster the Multiple Intelligences
  • Student projects can be designed to foster the Multiple Intelligences while also learning via musicals as content-rich material
  • Projects can be inspired by musicals in terms of settings, characters, songs, time periods, and themes. Keep in mind that the Multiple Intelligences can easily be bridged to project-based learning and higher order thinking.
  • Interdisciplinary learning is encouraged because musicals are typically treated by a few or more disciplines
  • All students can use their strengths
  • By highlighting music and musicals, we can especially foster musical intelligence.
  • Carefully-designed activities and projects can utilize Multiple Intelligences as well as higher-order thinking as in Bloom’s Taxonomy

While the basic premises of Multiple Intelligences may be used for other activities and projects, the following chart is designed to bridge musicals with the Multiple Intelligences.

The Multiple Intelligences

Descriptions

Examples Using Musicals

Visual-Spatial

Language of shapes, images, patterns, designs, colors, visuals, symbols, and art

Reading music and musical notation; reading libretti and scripts of musicals; creating visual art; analyzing scenic design and costumes

Logical-Mathematical

Recurring patterns involving words, numbers, geometric designs, sequences, and problem-solving

Set design; technological aspects of staging a musical or filming a musical; creating projects that require a logical progression

Bodily-Kinesthetic

Physical movement such as relative and interpretive dance, mime, drama, role play, gesture, body language, and physical games and exercise

Analysis and performance of dances; blocking of musical scenes; acting out scenes from a musical or role playing a fairy tale character

Naturalist

Natural patterns, flora, fauna, species groupings, the natural world including plants, animals, water, and weather

Learning about the climate and natural surroundings for a musical’s locale

Musical Rhythmic

Tones, resonance, beats, vibrational patterns, timbre, pitch, rhythm, and sounds (human, environmental, music)

Analysis of musical score; performing songs vocally and instrumentally; create an original song featuring a folk tale character

Verbal-Linguistic

Language of spoken word, reading, writing, storytelling, linguistic patterns, and strong auditory skills

Analysis of song lyrics, dialog; interpretation and analysis of libretto or script; writing assignments; oral presentations; listening to music, especially song lyrics

Interpersonal

Human relationships, collaboration, teamwork, cooperation, and meaningful encounters with others

Brainstorming for project; group assignments or learning stations; acting out scenes from a musical as a group

Intrapersonal

Introspection and awareness of internal aspects of self, awareness of feeling, intuition, thought processes, spiritual pursuits, beliefs, and values

Reacting to the physical, emotional, and spiritual themes within a musical; deciding whether you agree with the motivations of the main characters within a musical; metacognition “thinking about thinking” while working on tasks

The following discussion turns to general curricular issues and bridging musicals with the Multiple Intelligences in activities and projects.

Curricular Guidelines

A New Jersey Parks presentation with text in Spanish on paper leaves from a Spanish 5 class.

Addressing curriculum-related issues will ensure success in tying musicals to the Multiple Intelligences. Assignments can easily be student-centered so that students are fully engaged and take ownership of their learning. The musicals and Multiple Intelligences can ideally be done thematically and assignments can be authentic, rigorous, and up-to-date adhering to 21st century standards. Bloom’s Taxonomy can also be useful in designing tasks. Learning styles can certainly be accounted for in assignments so that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and students that combine two or all three modes can perform the way they do best.

In their book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind, Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda explore student-centered learning and the habits of mind. These 16 dispositions help individuals creatively problem solve in school and in life. My article, “Musicals Foster Habits of Mind” (Mason 2017), outlines specific ways to practice the habits of mind using numerous examples from musicals. Curriculum integration of musicals must not be limited to school musicals; other musicals appropriate to students’ age and maturity level can be ideal learning experiences.

Teachers have a few options for utilizing musicals as follows:

  • The same musical for the entire group or students work individually or in groups on different musicals
  • The school musical to create excitement and interest within the school community
  • A musical that offers a powerful message
  • A classic musical by famous composers and lyricists from the mid-twentieth century
  • A newer musical that is currently playing on Broadway

Students creating musicals-related projects can work on their own, producing high quality, rigorous projects that are guided by a rubric while fostering intrapersonal intelligence. Elementary school students can also participate. A special truncated performance could be staged at the elementary school or a class trip to the middle school or high school could be arranged. Elementary teachers can easily do hands on projects with students to create interest, excitement, and love of learning.

Projects and Unit Ideas

An Into the Woods fabric project entitled “Little Red Riding Hood’s Cloak” fostered Verbal-Linguistic, Visual-Spatial, Logical-Mathematical, Musical- Rhythmic, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal Intelligences.

When we staged Into the Woods, we had students complete a number of projects that featured the Multiple Intelligences. This section outlines specific projects in a few subjects that were completed tied to the musical Into the Woods. Many of these work in music and performing arts classes because they are designed to integrate musicals into the curriculum. I prepared Into the Woods study guides for teachers and abridged student guides for cast members. The sidebar “Into the Woods” provides a description of the musical. Other children’s literature musicals can tie into an Into the Woods integration: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Once Upon a Mattress.

Many of the projects described here can easily be utilized with other musicals. Some may be repeated different years with different groups of students. For example, quilts were completed for six of eight musical curriculum integrations that I oversaw.

Integrating musicals into the curriculum is ultimately in the hands of creative and skilled educators who can encourage students to foster many Intelligences within the curriculum or program at hand. For activities and projects, students use their own inherent Multiple Intelligences and incorporate a few of them. For example, interpersonal intelligence can be utilized for a student brainstorming session, during the completion of activities, and as a follow up with the entire class. Clearly, within music courses, the musical intelligence will be highlighted by focusing on a musical’s score, making songs a key component. Yet the other Intelligences can complement the overall experience and encourage students to tap into their full potential.  Intrapersonal intelligence can be utilized by having students reflect on their thought processes as they complete assignments. They can reflect on Into the Woods or another musical. How do they like it? What is their favorite scene or song? What does this scene or song say about them as an individual? What deep meaning or messages do students get from the musical under analysis? Students undertake a solo project so they can reflect on what they are doing and how they are doing it.

The front lobby display case included trees, a gingerbread house, a witch, our show poster, study guides, the published Into the Woods libretto on a starlit background.

To identify students’ Intelligences, students can take an online or traditional paper and pencil test to help instructors determine students’ talents in the various Intelligences and help students  reflect and see what Intelligences they can explore using a musical.

The musicals approach can be in the form of a unit, part of a unit, or a stand-alone project or activity tied to a school musical or other selected musical. Instructors can design lessons around the songs and themes of a school musical as I did for eight years. Providing students with a menu of possible projects that they can choose from can expedite the process. Students can also devise their own project with teacher and class input and teacher approval. This would include having students incorporate a few of the Multiple Intelligences into projects.

In world languages and social studies, students created several projects. In a French 5 class, students created their own renditions of French folktales with illustrations and text inspired by African culture. Commemorative stamps were done in an Italian 1 class, accompanied by text about Into the Woods creators and folk tale characters. In another Italian 1 class, students created an Into the Woods folk tale calendar featuring drawings and character descriptions in Italian.

Jack and the Beanstalk appeared in our cafeteria display.

In Spanish 3, students created paper dolls of our Into the Woods cast members with biographies in Spanish. Students in Spanish 5 researched parks and reservations of New Jersey, their home state, to bring in the “woods” theme.  They created paper trees and text in Spanish printed on paper leaves based on their research that integrated visual-spatial and naturalist intelligences. A quilt also completed by Spanish 5 featured folk tales and the creative team of Into the Woods. Italian 4 completed a similar fabric project but folk tale fabric panels were placed on the bright red shimmering hooded cloak of Little Red Riding Hood. This was part of a thematic unit featuring Italian folktales by Italo Calvino, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola, and classic fairy tales in Italian.
For a United States History 2 course, students created montages for musicals that teach us about history and culture. Twenty-two montages representing 22 musicals were created including Annie Get Your Gun, Evita, Fiorello!, My Fair Lady,  Pippin, and 1776 combining research, the arts, history, and visual-spatial intelligence.

A group of students worked on a thematic lobby display. These included a painted mural of trees with three folk tale characters, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood, with an ornate “Once Upon a Time…” header. The front lobby display case featured artificial trees with a dark background, lights representing stars, a gingerbread house with a witch, and various Into the Woods publications including a Broadway Playbill and our study guide. Our cafeteria featured display boards with student class projects, colorful stained-glass window panels with fairy tale images, Jack and the beanstalk, Rapunzel’s long hair using yellow yarn, and a cast photo board. A student artist created an Into the Woods graphic for our study guides that featured Little Red Riding Hood on a path walking into the woods.

Summary

Musicals, an important part of the arts and United States popular culture, can be explored using the Multiple Intelligences. Many possibilities invite student learning and an understanding of the Multiple Intelligences while also learning musicals as content. Musical Intelligence can be especially fostered in music courses. Both instructors and students alike will experience how educational it can be to explore musicals – the Multiple Intelligences way.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. is based in New Providence, New Jersey. He received eight Rising Star Awards from the Paper Mill Playhouse for Educational Impact including one for Into the Woods. Dr. Mason has authored numerous articles about musicals and is currently writing a book, Musicals Across the Curriculum: Interdisciplinary Pathways to Learning.

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