Girl playing piano

Our beliefs in musical ‘talent’ may hold back budding musicians


New music education research from the USA claims that children who have confidence in their own musical abilities are more likely to continue their music education than those with a poor ‘musical self-concept’. Early judgements about which children are ‘talented’ or not may therefore hold back those who have less confidence (and perhaps support).

Although music is a compulsory subject in elementary (primary) schools in the USA (5-10-years-old*), only 34% of students register for music instruction when they move to middle (or junior high) school (11-13-years-old*). [*]

To understand why so many students choose to opt out of music, Dr Steven Demorest, professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, along with co-authors Dr Jamey Kelley, music education programme co-ordinator at Florida International University, and Dr Peter Pfordresher, professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo (The State University of New York), surveyed 319 sixth-graders from five elementary schools.

The students were asked about their family background, their attitudes toward music, their beliefs about themselves as musicians, as well questions relating to peer influence and other variables. Then the researchers waited until those same students had chosen their classes in middle school.

The study found that a combination of family background, musical self-concept, and peer influence predicted with 74% accuracy which students would choose to continue with music.

“This decision seems to be rooted in our mistaken belief that musical ability is a talent rather than a skill,” Demorest said. “Children who believe themselves to be musically talented are more inclined to continue to participate in music, and subsequently they get better and better. Conversely, children with a poor musical self-concept were inclined to quit, a decision people often grow to regret as adults.”

In the second part of the study, the researchers measured the singing accuracy of students drawn from the opt-in (to music education in middle school) and the opt-out groups. They found no significant differences in singing accuracy between the two groups. There was, however, a link between musical self-concept and accuracy.

“The data raises an alarming prospect that singing accuracy could be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the case of individuals with poor musical self-concept,” said co-author Dr. Peter Pfordresher. “If a child falsely believes he or she is a poor musician, for a variety of reasons that child may actually become one.”

The new findings are published in the Journal of Research in Music Education.

Northwestern University:
Sage Journals:

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