Musical thinking is the thought processes involved in formulating musical compositions (sequences of notes intended to evoke a particular affective state) so that they can be played by a musical device (musician(s) plus instrument(s)). It involves thought processes such as recognizing or selecting a key, formulating a melody, considering relationships between melody and harmony, genre and affect, as well as embodied practices of intentional sound-making (such as instrument playing), manipulation of sound equipment and technical devices (amplifiers, sound boards), use of recording and sound engineering software, as well as representational practices of working with musical symbol systems, and social and performative practices of collaborative melodic generation. Musical thinking involves core concepts such as note, key, rhythm, instrument, syncopation and genre.
Musical thinking pervades every world culture, with the American music industry alone generating tens of billions of dollars annually. Children as young as 18 months can engage in musical thinking when they sing a nursery rhyme or repetitively bang together pots and pans; teenagers across the country select musical compositions to engage or promote desirable affective states. Musical thinking curricula should focus on core concepts (“note" and “instrument" are developmentally appropriate even for preschoolers) and development of musical thinking skills (and practices) such as keeping rhythm and tuning instruments. Note though that one does not need to use an instrument to do musical thinking; in fact, musical thinking can and should precede the actual making of sounds. Musical thinking has the power to improve students’ skills in formulating and representing their thoughts, which will benefit them across all domains and disciplines.