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Children’s beliefs about talent influence music participation

Study suggests children opt out of music class based on false belief they lack ability

Many adults who believe they can’t carry a tune likely formed those beliefs in elementary school, according to new Northwestern University research.  

Steven Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, looked at the attitudes and beliefs that influence whether or not children choose to continue studying music and how those factors related to their actual singing ability.

“The decisions people make as a child could have lifelong consequences for their relationship with music as an adult,” said Demorest. “We are talking about a major form of human expression that many people may be missing out on because they believe, falsely, that they do not have musical talent.”

Almost all American children participate in music as a required subject in elementary school.  The first opportunity to opt out is generally in middle school, and a majority of students do opt out, according to recent statistics. A mere 34 percent of U.S. students register for elective music instruction when they move onto junior high school.

To examine the reasons why students opt out, Demorest, with co-authors Jamey Kelley and Peter Pfordresher, surveyed 319 sixth-graders from five elementary schools. They asked them questions about their family background, attitude toward music, their beliefs about themselves as musicians, and questions relating to peer influence and other variables. Then they waited until those same students chose their classes in junior high.

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The decisions people make as a child could have lifelong consequences for their relationship with music as an adult.

Steven Demorest
professor of music education

The study, published in the Journal of Research in Music Education, found that a combination of family background, musical self-concept and peer influence predicted with 74 percent accuracy which students choose to continue in elective music. Surprisingly, students’ attitude toward music, or how much they liked it, was not a predictor of whether they chose to continue.

“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 part two of the study, the researchers measured the singing accuracy of students drawn from the opt-in and opt-out groups. They found no significant differences in singing accuracy between the two groups. There was, however, a connection between musical self-concept and accuracy.

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

Percentage of U.S. students who register for elective music instruction when they move onto junior high school

This research builds on an earlier study, published in the journal Music Perception, which suggested that the ability to sing accurately is a skill, rather than a talent, which gets better with practice. In that study, Demorest and Pfordresher compared the singing accuracy of three groups: kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults.

They found considerable improvement in accuracy from kindergarten to late elementary school, when most children are receiving regular music instruction. 

But in the adult group, the gains were reversed -- to the point that college students performed at the level of the kindergarteners on two of the three tasks -- suggesting the “use it or lose it” effect. 

Demorest theorized that the children got better at singing because they practiced regularly while the adults may have stopped honing their singing skills altogether. 

“The current study provides support for the interpretation of the previous study because the kids who chose to go on differed from those who did not in background and musical self-concept, but not in terms of ability,” Demorest said.