From the Mouths of Music Majors: Loving and Learning

Every year in the Spring semester, I teach a class called “Music Learning and Development,” which is populated by sophomore music education majors (the course counts as their educational psychology training). One of the first topics of the class is motivation. Among other issues, we cover the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation, similar to this previous post. A couple weeks ago, as part of an application assignment, my students identified a musical activity of theirs that they do out of intrinsic motivation. I asked them to think carefully about why it’s so rewarding and describe their motives in a brief essay.

As you might expect, their responses were varied and insightful. I was not surprised by what I read, but I was impressed with how articulately and passionately they spoke of their musical loves. Their comments, some of which I share below with their permission (and names changed), fall in line with some general principles supported by recent research in music education, as well as much anecdotal evidence relayed to me by musicians and teachers over the years.

Musical tastes affect learning.

There’s no substitute for intrinsic motivation. No teacher-generated incentive (or threat) can match the attention and drive produced by intrinsic motivation. If students generally like what they are doing, it can yield a commitment that’ll sustain them through many challenges. And if they love many aspects of an activity, it can spark rapid and long term growth.

In my students’ comments about what intrinsically motivates them, I saw a trend toward performance opportunities that typically include more vernacular music. Mentioned by several students were show choir, marching band, pep band, musical theatre, and jazz groups. Others expressed their enjoyment of playing popular songs on guitar or piano. One student told of the fun he has playing in a polka band!

With many of the musical styles and activities represented above, I wonder if some of students’ attraction is due to the overt energy—even physicality—associated with them. Perhaps young people’s engagement and learning is boosted when the activity is…well, active! One student Katie said this about performing in show choir:

I really do not need to be in it for any reason other than the personal joy I get out of rehearsing and performing with this group. I love to dance, and I do not get to do so anywhere else. I also get to sing pop music, something that does not happen often in the School of Music.

Does this mean we should abandon classical music and the repertoire of traditional school concert ensembles? Of course not. These are the perfect vehicles for accomplishing some critical outcomes of music education. But given the facilitating power of intrinsic motivation to learning, I would like school curricula to continue to broaden and be more inclusive of multiple musical styles, including those that are familiar to and preferred by students. Some very important learning objectives—improving aural skills, building technical facility, and increasing musical creativity, among many others—can be effectively attained using styles of music that students love.

Music is a means of knowing others and oneself.

Research is establishing that two broad benefits of music participation are social development and identity formation. Many of my students pointed to their preferred music activities as means of making friends and stimulating personal growth. Of his favorite musical group, Jared said: “When practicing or performing, I get to be myself. I don’t have to put on a ‘societal mask’ because I’m truly in my element. I am in it purely for the love of the art.” Similarly, Aurora said playing her own singer-songwriter material on the piano is “a way to express what I feel on the inside into something more tangible and musical…and help me remember why I love music and why I am working hard at school.”

Another student Melinda described it this way:

It is important for me to have a group I participate in only out of the pure passion I have to express myself. I also make tons of friends, all whom I consider my family. There is no possible way I could be in this group out of extrinsic motivation because we don’t compete, so there are no rewards or grades or gain other than the feeling you get when you are doing what you love, with the people you love.

The social rewards of a music group don’t just happen outside of rehearsals and performance. It would seem that significant bonding can occur during the music making itself. In Hector’s comment below, you can see that improvisation not only serves a self-expressive purpose, it allows connection to others.

One very important musical activity for me is free improvisation with friends. It allows me to get away from any written music, and focus solely on the people around me. Free improvisation doesn’t mean going crazy on your instrument with no rules. If one person plays an idea, then you’re bound to the dynamics, tempo, and roughly the same style of rhythm and articulation. It’s similar to someone asking you to paint a rainbow, but they only give you white and black paint. You have certain limits, but you’re free to do whatever you need to do in order to reach what you feel is necessary, musically.

To optimally learn, students must feel empowered.

Hector’s comment above also illustrates how motivating it is to feel autonomy or a sense of control in music. Many of the groups cited by my students have an increased element of student leadership. Marching bands, for instance, often utilize students as rank leaders or section leaders. I suspect that young musicians are more willing to do hard work when they feel it is their work. Rene noted the adversities of outdoor rehearsals in Nebraska’s sweltering summer heat and bitter winter cold, but concluded, “I miss every second of it in the off season and I crave to go back and work on more drills.”

In order for students to feel empowered or invested in an activity, teachers need not relinquish their leadership role. But they may benefit from extending to students more decision-making opportunity. However it is accomplished, student musicians thrive when they feel their contributions are valued and significant. Kellen admitted that playing a melody instrument provides a “huge feeling of satisfaction and importance.” He went on to explain it greater detail:

It is kind of selfish reasoning, but I just feel important to the group as I play the melody so often, and with an instrument that can be heard by most the audience. I feel like the success of the performance has a great deal to do with me, and I enjoy that responsibility.

While these student don’t typically use the term “intrinsic motivation” when they speak of their music making, they definitely understand the concept. They have experienced it, and for most of them, it’s what led them to choose their major. I hope that these sophomores will continue to connect with their musical loves as they get deeper into the music education degree, and throughout their teaching careers that follow. They may face more and more musical expectations (i.e., extrinsic factors) going forward. Ideally they won’t allow those things to dominate their time such that they stop engaging in self-selected music activities. Here’s one final student quote, from Wilson, that says it well:

This group has provided me with an enjoyment that I think all music students should have. Playing in this group is not about making money or even advancing yourself musically, it’s about making music for the group.

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Image source: Photo taken by Liz Love of


4 responses to “From the Mouths of Music Majors: Loving and Learning

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Bob! I think the self-directed, intrinsic focus is great.
    If anything, it is more respectful to the students to think about their perspective rather than taking a prescriptive teaching approach. When I was a young student, rigid classical pedantry frustrated me — but no moreso than patronizing pop music selections.

    I would like to believe that elements of the musical experience (physicality, exciting rhythms, social experience, creativity) matter far more than the element of being vernacular or not. Do you think your polka-playing student actually experiences polka as his vernacular music? I would love to get your take on this question: Is vernacular perhaps a good indicator of what people find appealing, but not necessarily the cause?

    Of course, familiarity is important to perception and cognition. But isn’t it more the fun syncopations, creative process, etc. that make vernacular music successful? Students don’t necessarily like the most simplistic cliche pop music learned pedantically, right? And if we had some novel music, foreign music, or even classical music that had all the right appealing physical, creative, expressive elements — I’d like to think that would do as well for intrinsic motivation as anything. Maybe there are rhythmic, timbrel, physical, or creative elements that are missing from the most rigid traditional music school curriculum and vernacularity is not the issue… I’m not sure, but I’d love your take. I think you’re totally on the right track overall!

    • Aaron – I think we’re mostly on the same page here. It’s the processes and approaches of vernacular music that are so appealing, and not necessarily the style per se. I suspect that the preservation and advancement of classical music would benefit from embracing these things, just as popular music is enhanced by borrowing from the best of the formal-classical tradition.


  2. A great post, full of insights. Those boldface lines are great; they could be on a poster.

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