Boosting Intrinsic Motivation for Music Learning

We often talk about motivation as if it’s merely a feeling that overcomes us. How many times have I skipped my plan to the gym to work out because “I’m just not motivated right now.” We musicians often complain of not being motivated to practice. Of course, what we’re really saying is we just don’t feel like practicing. Often we seem prepared to wait (and wait…and wait…) until we do feel like starting a practice session. Many so-called motivational speakers have caught on to this and simply try to stir up the feelings of their listeners. Those in the audience may make ambitious plans during the inspiring speech, but ultimately fail to follow through on them after the speaker traveled on to the next presentation (check in hand).

Motivation is linked to the beliefs we hold and the emotions we experience but, to quote the old Boston song, it really is “more than a feeling.” Lots of people are so attracted to music as children that they want to learn a musical instrument. Yet relatively few of them ever learn to play one well. Why? Because it entails a great deal of effort! The kind of practicing that’s required is not enjoyable. Even the most highly successful musicians admit that they do not like to practice. So why do they end up doing it anyway?

While practice per se is rarely pleasurable, many experiences within music are. Growing musically requires a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. An activity that is intrinsically motivating is one that is rewarding in itself (think…eating pizza). We do the activity for the sake of it. In contrast, an activity that is extrinsically motivated is done for a reason outside of the activity (think…drinking a low-cal meal replacement shake). We do it because of the consequences of doing it. So, is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic important? Just because I sing along to my favorite recordings because I enjoy it (intrinsic), and I practice scales because it builds my performance facility (extrinsic)…what good does it do me to know this?

Perhaps the greatest benefit comes in avoiding burnout as a musician. When people find their musical involvement is dominated by extrinsically motivated activities, then they are in danger of quitting music altogether. I’ve heard too many college music majors say as seniors, “I can’t wait until my recital is done, and I’ll never have to perform again.” It’s sad that performance–presumably the act of sharing music with people who want to hear it–has become something that some musicians feel they “have to” do.

Here are some ways for musicians to capitalize on intrinsic motivation for music learning:

  • Choice and personal autonomy – Musicians need to “take ownership,” as the cliché goes. Research suggests that musicians willingly invest more time and attention on material that they’ve chosen for themselves. Feeling empowered and having a sense of self-determination are characteristics that distinguish play from work.
  • Inclusion of musical “loves” – As alluded to earlier, lots of young people choose to study music because they love music. Usually what attracts them to music is its ability to express emotions and produce powerful feelings in people. There may be a particular style of music that they’d listen to for hours at a time any chance they get. But all too often, music students find themselves focusing mostly on technical performance issues (over expressive ones), and working on music that is nothing like what’s on their iPods. Music learning is only enhanced when students connect to what they really love about music.
  • Emphasizing the social of music making – Human beings are social creatures. We are driven to connect with each other in a variety of ways. For many people, this is the reason they get involved with music. Lots of teenagers choose to join the high school music program (or drop out of it) in order to be with their friends. But it’s not just goofy teenagers collapsing under peer pressure. All around the world, group music making is a central part of cultural life. Connecting with others through artistic expression is a powerful reward.
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5 responses to “Boosting Intrinsic Motivation for Music Learning

  1. Pingback: Creative Collaboration « All Piano

  2. I think have a set practice time (something we form as a habit) can be a big boost to the rewards of practice. As an orchestra teacher, finding intrinsic motivation is a big part of what I try to engender. I like your posts. Indeed, ownership and the connection to “their” music as well as the cultural aspects are all essentials. I see the importance of all three with my students (ages 9-18).

  3. Pingback: Coming Soon: Grammy-Winning Music Teachers | Being musical. Being human.

  4. Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is great, let alone the content!

  5. Pingback: Warte nicht auf deine Motivation. Tue einfach, was zu tun ist | Instrumentor Blog

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