Feedback in Music Teaching: Why “Good!” Is Not Good Enough

TeacherStudentAs a music teacher, I can get so preoccupied telling students what I’d like them to do, and trying to motivate them to do it, that I forget afterward to let them know how well they did. I may suppose that students don’t need me to spell it out for them. Won’t they hear it for themselves if their music sounds better? Or pick up on the grimace on my face if it doesn’t? Receiving feedback, though, is a critical part of the learning process. If we as teachers are not making a point to communicate it to them, we shouldn’t assume that our students are figuring it out on their own. And simply shouting “Good!” while student sing or play their instruments offers little in the long run.

Giving feedback is a hallmark of quality music instruction, but one that can be easily overlooked. Good teachers are keenly aware of the responsibility to manage how time is spent. Although hopefully the biggest proportion of lesson time is occupied by student music making, teachers must also take time to talk to students. In the throes of a well-paced lesson, teachers will want to be efficient with their verbalizations in giving directions and explaining musical concepts. (I also hope teacher allow for students themselves to talk about their music making, as this can provide insight into the cognitive strategies underlying performance.) Offering feedback to students is just as important as these other teacher roles.

Last month I came across two good sources online that took up the topic of feedback. The first was a Freakonomics podcast titled “When Is a Negative a Positive?” In this short episode, journalist Stephen Dubner shares some research from the field of business management. Tackling the question of whether positive or negative feedback is more motivating, the podcast offers the answer: it depends…on the recipients’ level of expertise. With people who are new to a particular endeavor, positive feedback seems essential to help them increase their dedication to it. But for those who are more expert in a field, negative feedback can be more efficient in producing growth.

This general idea has been found in music education also, as researchers have probed the value of positive versus negative feedback. For teachers who work with beginning musicians, one of the most important qualities they can have is a warmth dimension (Lehmann, Sloboda, & Woody, 2007, ch. 3). Most young students thrive under the tutelage of a teacher whose personality is friendly and encouraging, and who makes music learning a positive (even fun!) experience. This type of learning environment would necessarily include much positive reinforcement from teacher to students. However, as kids mature and increase in commitment to their music activities, they seem to be able to handle more critical feedback from teachers. In fact they may even welcome it, knowing that it can advance their skill level, which in turn makes music participation more rewarding. Research studies in high school band contexts have found that these older students are able to benefit from negative feedback and they seem to understand that taking criticism is a necessary step toward musical improvement (Duke & Henninger, 2002; Whitaker, 2011).

Another online source that recently took up the topic of feedback was author Annie Murphy Paul, who writes much about how people learn. She offered up a blog post on keys to giving good feedback. Drawing on the results of educational research, she points out that effective feedback goes beyond just praise or criticism. It is informative and instructive to learning goals. Ideally feedback shows students how to monitor and evaluate their own performing, in effect making them less dependent on the teacher and more in control of their own learning. “The ultimate goal of feedback,” says Paul, “should be to teach learners how to give feedback to themselves.”

Of course these ideas also have much application to music education, especially to student musicians who have grown beyond the beginner stage. As teachers, we can be so focused on helping students prepare the music they’re working on that we neglect our responsibility to prepare them as musicians. We do this best by empowering them with the musical knowledge and skills they need to be self-sufficient learners who are able to make musical decisions for themselves. This is one of the reasons that simply telling students “Good!” accomplishes little. Broad feedback like this does not give learners much to take with them into the future. In these “Good!” moments, students can too easily think “ah, my teacher is pleased” without understanding what they did to produce the musically pleasing result.

I think we should aspire to offer more specific feedback that’s primarily directed at what students our have done, as opposed to who they are. Don’t get me wrong…we should make sure our students know that we respect them as people, and we believe them to be capable musicians. But whether using praise to inspire greater investment in music, or criticism to produce performance improvement, the main object of the feedback should be students’ music making. Telling students “you guys are awesome” or “you’re fantastic musicians” may be well intentioned and seem important in building self-esteem and a musical identity. But the positive feeling students get from simple praise like this can be fleeting. Consider, however, specific feedback directed at students’ performance, such as, “You used excellent breath support on that phrase” or “When you focus on rhythm there, your solo comes to life.” This feedback is informative and gives learners something they can take with them into the future. It can reinforce the physical skills and cognitive strategies that allow them to perform at their best. It’s true that young people rely heavily on the appraisals of others in self-concept building, but they do so based on beliefs about what things they can do well. If you just tell a student she’s a great musician, she may dismiss it as nice teacher flattery; even if she really receives the compliment, the emotional impact may soon fade. But if you tell her, for example, that her piano playing has improved since she started using more dynamic contrast, then you’ve given her knowledge that can be very useful going forward.

Giving feedback is something most music teachers do naturally. But a reminder now and then can be helpful. Perhaps we should strive to be more mindful and adaptable. It seems the right amount of positive and negative feedback depends on where our students are in their individual musical development.


Duke, R. A., & Henninger, J. C. (2002). Effects of verbal corrections on student attitude and performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46, 482-495.

Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitaker, J. A. (2011). High school band students’ and directors’ perceptions of verbal and nonverbal teaching behaviors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59, 290-309.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Jose Kevo on Flickr Creative Commons

Music as an Elixir for Your Brain

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

ImageAdmittedly I keep watch for such things, but recently I’ve seen quite a few internet headlines about the benefits of music to the brain. For example, I’ve read online that practicing a musical instrument boosts motor and sensory brain development, that “uplifting music” enhances brain capacity, and that children who are “not musically inclined” can gain stronger brains with early music lessons. These kinds of media reports are usually welcomed sights for musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates. We personally experience the power of music, and know how it informs the way we think about the world around us. Hearing about musical brain research is affirming to us.

There are, however, some implicit problems with claims that musical brains are better than other brains. For one, there are multiple types of musicians whose skills can differ greatly. For instance, most formally trained musicians focus on technique development and performance from notation, whereas never-had-a-lesson vernacular musicians often improvise and playing by ear. Surely the brains of these two kinds of musicians develop very differently. More generally, findings of brain research are not easily communicated because the research itself is complex and detail oriented. Each study has limitations that must be considered when interpreting its results. Each one addresses only a small aspect of brain function, and contributes just a bit more to a body of literature that’s useful in answering bigger questions.

Such limitations can be lost when media writers (and bloggers!) share research in ways that a general readership will find interesting. Consider a recent study which scanned the brains of formally trained musicians—professionals and university-level music students—who began their training before the age of 7 (Steele, Bailey, Zatorre, & Penhune, 2013). Compared to later-trained musicians and non-musicians, the early-trained musicians had greater white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum. This important finding can be difficult to apply practically to musicians and to parents of youngsters in music lessons. The first internet report I saw about this study did not really hit the mark with its opening line, “If you played the recorder in first grade, you should thank your parents and music teacher now.” Obviously the vast majority of children who played recorder in elementary school have not continued to become professionals or music majors, and thus not likely recipients of the brain benefits identified in the research.

A recent TEDTalk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett titled “Beware Neuro-Bunk” addresses inaccurate brain claims by media and advertisers. They capitalize by just mentioning the brain in an article title or using a picture of a brain on product packaging. “Do you want to sell it?” she asks, then “put a brain on it.” Inaccuracies can result from the fact that the same brain part can perform multiple functions. Borrowing one of Crockett’s examples, consider brain scans which suggest that music activates the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pleasure and love (e.g., Brown, Martinez, & Parsons, 2004). If music activates the insula, and the insula is associated with pleasure and love, then we have brain evidence that music produces happiness, right? Well, unfortunately the insula is also known to be involved in feelings of disgust and pain!

Good scientists are careful to address such points in their research reports. In their write-ups, however, they are also entitled to discuss plausible interpretations of their data. They may draw from past psychological literature to offer a theory. (Note, Brown et al., 2004, used interviews with their participants to further establish that music elicits positive feelings.) Researchers are usually judicious in discussing their findings, and clearly indicate when they’re being speculative. In a typical media report, quotes from researchers are the most restrained and carefully worded statements of the entire piece.

When people overlook important details, it can lead to some pretty fantastic claims about the benefits of music, such as the so-called “Mozart effect” of the 1990s. The original study found that college students did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to sitting in silence or hearing a relaxation tape (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). This very specific result somehow morphed into a “music makes kids smarter” movement that was embraced by many in the field of music education. In a grand display of irony, one governor aspired to raise the intelligence of his state through a rather misinformed initiative, proposing a law that a Classical music CD be issued to the parents of every newborn baby. As much as I support broadening the musical exposure of people, I’m not in favor of doing so under the guise of improving things like general intelligence, mathematical understanding, and standardized test scores. The wave of excitement for the Mozart effect eventually receded, as other researchers were unable to replicate the study. Perhaps also, people saw the folly of using music to improve math knowledge, instead of…well, simply offering better math instruction. The current brain-based music claims are not going unchallenged either. University of Toronto psychologist Glenn Schellenberger has been an outspoken critic of efforts to present music lessons as intelligence boosters. While emphasizing the value of music education, he asserts that to desire it for any transfer effects beyond music “is a complete waste of time.”

Perhaps a good starting point is applying some common sense to claims that music affects other abilities. In other words, if music does improve a certain cognitive function, is there reasonable explanation for it? For example, another recent study found that school-based instrumental music instruction improved the verbal memory skills of children (Rodin, Kreutz, & Bongard, 2012). Verbal memory has to do with how well people commit to memory words that they hear. The music instruction in the study included singing, rhythmic clapping, and pitch identification exercises—all activities that involve listening. In explaining their findings, the researchers point to similarities in the brain’s auditory processing of speech and musical sounds.

Musicians don’t enter the profession to raise their IQ or improve their visual-spatial reasoning. People get involved with music for the musical benefits. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think musicians and arts advocates are best served by promoting the artistic and expressive outcomes of music experience. A couple of the recent brain-based music articles have included this quote by McGill University musician-neuroscientist Dan Levitin: “There are benefits to having a society where more people are engaged with the arts, so even if music instruction doesn’t make you a better mathematician or a better athlete, even if it only gives you the enjoyment of music, I think that is a good end in and of itself.” I couldn’t have said it better.


Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., Parsons, L. M. (2004). Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport, 15, 2033-2037.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Roden, I., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2012). Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology 3:572. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00572.

Steele, C. J., Bailey, J. A., Zatorre, R. J., & Penhune, V. B. (2013). Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: Evidence for a sensitive period. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(3), 1282-1290.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Café psicologico on Flickr Creative Commons

Coming Soon: Grammy-Winning Music Teachers

TimberlakePortnowLast night during the televised 55th Annual Grammy Awards show, two big music celebrities joined Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow on stage to announce the creation of the Music Educator Award, the presentation of which will begin in 2014. Justin Timberlake—who gave a highly entertaining performance during the show—and Ryan Seacrest offered some very supportive comments for the efforts of music teachers. Timberlake expressed thanks to those who taught him, and called teachers “the unsung heroes of our creative community” (note: “unsung” was probably not an intended pun!). Seacrest noted that for every Grammy winner, “there are thousands of great music educators, working behind the scenes to provide the inspiration, the passion, and the skills our young musicians need.” You can read a transcript of the announcement here.

As they concluded their message, the website was displayed on the screen. I soon visited the site and found some useful information, including several online forms for nominating people for the award. I also noted at the bottom of the site a statement that this new Music Educator Award is supported by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), as well as the NAMM Foundation. While on the site, I clicked on and took a look at all the various nomination forms. The ones for school administrators, recording academy members, and the general public were all quite similar; they mainly ask for the contact info of the nominee and nominator. The music teacher self-nomination form, however, solicits much more information. I expect that teachers who are nominated by someone else will eventually be directed to this online location. The first page of the form requests contact info, as well as estimates of demographic data for the teacher’s school (e.g., enrollment figures, urban/suburban/rural classification, racial makeup). The second page gets very interesting. It presents a number of position statements about music teaching, to which the teacher indicates his or her agreement. Ones that particularly grabbed my attention include:

  • Large Ensemble performances are a major factor in determining the success of a music program.
  • A successful music program should be determined by the number of students who make music their career.
  • It is important to create musical opportunities that generate interest to a broader student population.
  • Competition events are essential for student motivation.

This page of the application also asks teachers to indicate how often their instruction provides opportunities for improvisation, audiation, and singing (in instrumental rehearsals), as well as attention to music theory, historical context, and the business of music.

The final page of the self-nomination form asks a series of yes-or-no questions about the teacher’s values and priorities in the classroom. For example:

  • Do you provide instruction in multiple genres despite the possibility or probability of overall performance quality suffering?
  • Do you place emphasis on helping students acquire life skills as well as musical skills?
  • Do you emphasize playing/singing by ear as central to becoming an excellent singer/player?
  • Do you emphasize the reading of music as central to becoming an excellent singer/player?

The last item on the entire form is a field into which the teacher can state, in 50 words or less, one compelling reason why he or she should be considered for the award.

The questions and items on the nomination form suggest that the Grammys will be considering some important things when choosing music educators to recognize with this award. I’m glad to see attention will be paid to some of the issues I care so much about, such as creativity/improvisation, playing by ear, student motivation, and broadening the musicianship of teachers and students. It remains to be seen exactly how the Grammys will use and evaluate the data they collect from teachers. It appears that they may be trying to identify music educators who successfully use innovative and more individualized approaches with their students. Of course, as much as I count myself as a progressive in the field of music education, I hope that teachers who also maintain excellence in traditional school music pursuits are not somehow excluded from consideration. The Grammy Music Educator Award FAQ says that initial applications will be electronically scored and ranked, then semi-finalists will submit supplementary materials which a screening committee will review. Then a “Blue Ribbon Committee” will select finalists and recommend a winner. I can find no indication of who will comprise the committee(s). Ultimately, I hope that “Grammy-winning teachers” are selected with much input of highly qualified music educators. Perhaps this is where NAfME’s involvement will come into play.

I encourage everyone to visit the website and nominate a music educator whom you know to be doing great things for students. There are plenty out there, and I plan to submit more than a few nominations myself. Of course it would be virtually impossible for the Grammys to identify the most deserving music teacher, even if one such person were to exist. But still I am looking forward to hearing about whoever is honored with the first Music Educator Award a year from now. Hopefully it will be someone whose story will inspire other teachers and students, and raise awareness of the great value of music education.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: – photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Do Better-Looking Musicians Make Better Sounding Music?

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

SingingBeautyIn a week or so, two media-heavy music events will be upon us. Touted as “Music’s Biggest Night,” the Grammy Awards will be televised just one week following the musical-visual spectacle that is the Super Bowl halftime show. If you consider the musicians who’ll be at these events—Taylor Swift, LL Cool J, and Rihanna headline the Grammys, and Beyoncé stars at the big game—as well as other successful performers in the music industry, you might conclude that today’s audiences believe that the best music is offered by the best-looking people. Or perhaps they just prefer to open their ears to those who are also “easy on the eyes.” Of course, this is not just a modern phenomenon, nor is it limited to popular styles of music. The classical world has long featured performers who take the stage adorned in elegant gowns or suits, their appearance further ornamented by makeup, jewelry, and other accessories. Beauty, it seems, is a staple in most all kinds of music performance.

Research has established that what we hear in music—or perhaps more accurately, what we think we hear—is affected by what we see. Musicians (and producers) realize this and choose visual aspects of performance accordingly. As we saw over the recent holiday season, Christmas music usually comes with wintry images for the secular songs and religious ones for the sacred. New Years Eve performances are put on amid eye-catching party scenes. As for the performers themselves, facial expressions, bodily movements, and other visible attributes can heavily influence audience perception of musical quality. This includes the performer’s physical attractiveness.

It’s no secret that physical beauty can make people think and behave differently than they normally would. TV news programs seem to routinely run hidden video social experiments on how beautiful women affect the behavior of men (here’s one I came across recently). Typically, two people act as motorists stranded on the side of the road; one is an attractive woman and the other is…well…not. The cameras capture just how quickly men stop to help the damsel in distress. Of course, visual bias hasn’t always worked in women’s favor, as veteran symphony musicians can tell you. Female musicians were largely excluded from orchestras until behind-the-screen auditions were commonly instituted (Goldin & Rouse, 2000). Sexism notwithstanding, beauty bias seems to extend beyond our highways and into our concert halls, and often serves to advantage musicians who have the right look.

There is research that suggests that listeners hear music as more appealing when it comes from a more attractive musician. Over the last 15 years, an assortment of studies has shown that people tend to rate musical quality higher for performers who are judged to be physically attractive, as compared to those not judged as such (North & Hargreaves, 1997; Ryan et al., 2004; 2006; Wapnick et al., 1997, 1998, 2000, 2009). And it’s not just stage presence that’s more highly appraised. The quality of their sounded music is rated higher. This effect has even been found among highly trained musical evaluators (graduate level music study).

Simple physical beauty may have an effect, but there are other factors that influence how visually attractive a live performance will be. As I alluded to in a previous post, audiences are affected by the visuals cues of a performer’s wardrobe, bodily gestures, and stage behavior. We perceive the sights and sounds of a music performance together. These two forms of sensory input interact with each other (Kopiez & Platz, 2012), and both are filtered by our preexisting tastes and beliefs (e.g., the prestige effect). These cause us to form expectations for performance, which surely vary according to our knowledge of the performance conventions of different styles of music. What is considered attractive in terms of wardrobe and bodily gesture can differ greatly from one musical subculture to the next.

With this in mind, I would suggest that physical attractiveness bias in performance is not merely a matter of a musician’s absolute beauty (if there exists such a thing). Rather, we form expectations of what a “good musician” looks like, and we use them to judge whether particular performers look the part. The journal Psychology of Music recently published a research study smartly entitled “Posh Music Should Equal Posh Dress: An Investigation into the Concert Dress and Physical Appearance of Female Soloists” (Griffiths, 2010). As the title suggests, people’s opinions about the appropriateness of various performance attire—in this case jeans, a short nightclubbing dress, and a longer concert gown—were related to whether the performer played classical, jazz, or folk music. Judgments of appropriate dress coincided with higher ratings of musicality and technical performance ability.

The author of the “Posh” study says her research reinforces the idea that judgments of musical ability are connected to physical appearance. She makes specific application of her findings to the performance practices of female classical musicians. “Women wishing to project a body-focused image,” she writes, “should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability” (p. 175). This research underscores the fact that attractiveness is culturally defined, and certainly different musical subcultures define it differently. It brings to mind the controversies that can be stirred up when classical musicians stray from traditional concert dress. The concerts of pianist Yuja Wang often yield reviews that spend just as much attention on her dresses as on her music making. And when critics have taken issue with her fashion sense, others have taken issue with that.

Though some may disapprove of her wardrobe choices, I imagine that fewer people would dispute that Yuja Wang is an attractive young woman. As mentioned above, a musician’s physical attractiveness can contribute to favorable evaluations of her performing. But could it be that some people actually become better musicians because they are better-looking than others? There is some evidence to suggest this. The studies by Wapnick and colleagues indicated some bias toward attractiveness even when the performers were not seen. In these cases, the performances rated highest in audio-only conditions tended to be those of more attractive musicians (as judged separately). In explaining this, the researchers have theorized a deeper bias: as young musicians develop through training and other performance experiences, those who are more attractive garner more attention, opportunity, and encouragement. “It is conceivable,” they write, “that the effects of attractiveness on progress in music may begin early in life, may be long lasting, and may be profound” (Wapnick et al., 1998, p. 519).

Be it from a natural human mixing of sensory signals or the pervasiveness of beauty-driven media, there clearly exists an attractiveness bias in our modern society. It should not surprise us that it is so evident in music. Though music may primarily be an aural phenomenon, it is well established that visual elements are quite consequential in the appraisal of musical quality. In a meta-analysis of studies on audio-visual music perception, Kopiez and Platz (2012) conclude that the visual dimension is “not a marginal phenomenon…but an important factor in the communication of meaning” and it “exists for classical as well as pop and rock music” (p. 75). It seems that many of the top musicians of today understand this and stage their concerts accordingly. Perhaps with music, audiences shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but research suggests that it’s an awfully hard habit to break.


Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “blind” auditions on female musicians. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.

Griffiths, N. K. (2010). ‘Posh music should equal posh dress’: An investigation into the concert dress and physical appearance of female soloists. Psychology of Music, 38(2), 159-177.

Kopiez, R., & Platz, F. (2012). When the eye listens: A meta-analysis of how audio-visual presentation enhances the appreciation of music performance. Music Perception, 30(1), 71-83.

North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1997). The effect of physical attractiveness on responses to pop music performers and their music. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 15(1), 75–89.

Ryan, C., & Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). Attractiveness bias in the evaluation of young pianists’ performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 52(2), 141-54.

Ryan, C., Wapnick, J., Lacaille, N., & Darrow, A. (2006). The effects of various physical characteristics of high-level performers on adjudicators’ performance ratings. Psychology of Music, 34(4), 559-572.

Wapnick, J., Campbell, L., Siddell-Strebel, J., & Darrow, A. (2009). Effects of non-musical attributes and excerpt duration on ratings of high-level piano performances. Musicae Scientiae, 13(1), 35-54.

Wapnick, J., Darrow, A., Kovacs, J., & Dalrymple, L. (1997). Effects of physical attractiveness on evaluation of vocal performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(3), 470-479.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (1998). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on violin performance evaluation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46(4), 510-521.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (2000). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on children’s piano performances. Journal of Research in Music Education, 48(4), 323-336.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: PianoNOLA on Flickr Creative Commons

When Passion is a Prison

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Musicians are often highly driven people. Their drive and passion sustains them as they practice long hours, spend evenings and weekends at various performance gigs, and do the many other things required to build and maintain a music career. Being a musician is rarely a nine-to-five job. It’s more like a way of life. Research has shown that musicians, more than those in many other lines of work, tend to wrap up their personal identity within their occupation. And while the rewards can be great, they also require effort and can come at the expense of other things. So while music is an art for everyone, for those who make it their life’s focus, it’s also a discipline.

Being a passionate musician doesn’t always mean the same thing. Two people who are equally driven may have very different motivations underlying their drive. The key to a rewarding musical life is not just being extremely motivated or dedicated to your music. Some musicians’ passion may be driven by their infatuation with the creative and expressive potential of the art. Others’ passion may be characterized by their being wholly committed to their success as a professional. An emerging line of research is suggesting that the type of passion that musicians have can determine their potential for long-term fulfillment in the field. I believe that even for the most dedicated among us, there’s benefit in examining the motivation that’s at the root of our drive.

To date, the go-to research on musician passion is a study conducted by Bonneville-Roussy, Lavigne, and Vallerand (2011), published in the journal Psychology of Music. Drawing on the prior research of Robert Vallerand and colleagues (2003, 2008), this study of advanced classical musicians provided evidence for a Dualistic Model of Passion. This model indicates two types of passion: (1) harmonious passion, characterized by unpressured choice to engage in an activity, and the experience of positive emotions during and as a result of engaging in it; and (2) obsessive passion, typified by an unmanageable compulsion to carry out an activity, even through negative consequences. Harmonious passion (HP) musicians show a flexible persistence, and are able to balance their music activities with other aspects of life. Obsessive passion (OP) musicians are driven to practice and perform to attain the approval of people in their lives, or to maintain a self-esteem that is contingent upon musical success.

From the descriptions above, it’s probably not surprising to know that in the Bonneville et al. study, as well as others, harmonious passion seemed to facilitate a number of desirable outcomes. HP has been linked to the use of mastery goals (practicing to accomplish something, rather than to avoid failing), more productive practicing behaviors, overall performance level, and psychological well-being (self-reported satisfaction with life). Obsessive passion has been found to be unrelated to these. In contrast, OP is associated with the use of performance-avoidance goals (e.g., practicing to avoid an embarrassing concert) and the experience of guilt feelings when not practicing or improving “enough.”

I first became aware of the research on passion when I was invited to be a part of a “Music and Motivation” session at the International Conference on Motivation a couple years back. Like the research study reviewed above, the presentations there were compelling and led me to think much about this. The drawbacks of an obsessive passion orientation figured heavily into my suggestion in a previous blog post that practicing less might actually foster more musical growth. Fellow Psychology Today blogger Jeanette Bicknell also was moved to write about this line of research when she asked her readers, “Can you be too passionate about music?

As Dr. Bicknell suggests in her post, musicians can be too passionate about their pursuits. Or perhaps they can come to rely on a type of passion that is not optimal for them. But before oversimplifying it as “obsessive passion = bad” and “harmonious passion = good” let me point out some aspects of the OP approach that may at times serve a productive purpose. First, OP musicians often practice to attain the acceptance or approval of their instructors and others. Of course, among children who are beginners on a musical instrument, this kind of extrinsic motivation is very common. Music teachers provide incentives for at-home practicing, and parents add in their own rewards (or punishments) as part of their highly influential support (Creech, 2009). These things are considered by many to be necessities for young musicians to progress through the earliest levels of skill development. Second, it’s been reported that OP musicians experience guilt feelings when they miss practice sessions. Recall, though, that there are two kinds of guilt feelings. One is the proper outcome of your conscience if you actually do something wrong. If young musicians have taken on the responsibility to practice, and they choose to skip it, I’d say guilt feelings are a healthy response.

Note that I’m suggesting these two aspects of obsessive passion—desiring the approval of others, and experiencing guilt feelings—are not so bad if they’re present in young musicians’ lives. As they develop, however, they should depend less on such things for motivation. More and more, they should do music for themselves. They don’t practice because they have to, in order to please others or to avoid guilt feelings—especially if they’re the other kind of guilt feelings, i.e., those stemming from an imagined offense of some kind. Developing musicians ideally learn to practice because it’s become personally meaningful to them. Their musicianship has become an integral part of their identity. They don’t practice and perform out of pressure, or to avoid failure. They do it because they choose to, and because it’s who they are (see my earlier post about Self-Determination Theory).

Especially once they have outgrown the supervision of parents and teachers, even the most driven musicians should not be operating from a sense of compulsion, avoidance of shame, or fear of failure. Being driven by a harmonious passion may not be second nature for many, but the long-term benefits can be great. As mentioned above, HP musicians experience a sense of choice and feelings of enjoyment in their activities. They apply a flexible persistence to their practicing and performing, and are able to balance it with other things in their lives. Those who find the HP approach elusive may want to take stock of their musical activities, and identify sources of anxiety and guilt. They may also look for positive experiences that are missing from their music making, perhaps some that they once enjoyed. Transitioning to a harmonious passionate orientation may feel strange for some, but it may be the key to receiving the best rewards of a musical life.


Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Creech, A. (2009). The role of the family in supporting learning. In S. Hallam, I. Cross & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music psychology (pp. 295-306). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Vallerand, R.J., Blanchard, C.M., Mageau, G.A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., Gagné, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756–767.

Vallerand, R.J., Mageau, G.A., Elliot, A.J., Dumais, A., Demers, M.A., & Rousseau, F. (2008). Passion and performance attainment in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 373–392.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Daniel DJL248 on Flickr Creative Commons

Entertainment is Not Just Entertainment

Music educators often worry about their subject matter not being taken seriously. Other subjects like math, English, and science seem to be especially valued in our society. Most everyone agrees that it’s important that our children receive an education in these things. The subject of music, however, is sometimes relegated to the status of a frill. In many schools, music—and the other arts, for that matter—is seen as an extra-curricular or enrichment activity for students. It seems that in the minds of many, school music exists merely to provide entertainment for school assemblies, sporting events, and occasional concerts.

RockwellTrumpeterSo perhaps as music teachers and arts advocates, we need to take forth the message that music is not just entertainment. I certainly agree with this point, and support efforts to make it better known to school administrators, parents, and student musicians themselves. But I also believe we need to be careful how we go about refuting the perspective of “music as mere entertainment.” We can stray from the true nature of the arts when justify music’s place in schools through its contributions to other skills like abstract reasoning, language acquisition, math proficiency, self-discipline, and spatial intelligence. Although I believe that such transfer effects exist (some of them anyway), I’m not sure if they really make for a compelling argument. I mean, if I discover that my child is struggling with math, will my first response be to find more music opportunities for her? More likely, I’ll look to have her provided with some better math instruction.

Of course it would be silly to take the position that music is not entertainment. For many people, myself included, music is a top form of entertainment in modern life. We spend many hours of our everyday lives listening to music. We take in concerts and other events with our families and friends. And my personal favorite, we make music together…in community auditoriums, church and temple sanctuaries, park amphitheaters, and also in our living rooms, garages, and around the dinner table! These activities can be so important in our lives. Perhaps, in fighting the perception that music is just entertainment, we have missed a larger truth: entertainment is not just entertainment.

This became evident to me over the holiday season as I spent time with my family and friends. Sure, we exchanged gifts and had a few meals together (okay, more than a few). We also enjoyed some very rewarding moments together “entertaining” ourselves. Some of what we did was spectator oriented: we watched televised sporting events, saw a movie, and took in New Years Eve music performances on TV. And some of what we did I would call more participatory: we played cards and board games, sledded down a snowy hill, and even went to an indoor trampoline park. Musically, there was singing, piano and guitar playing, and I even offered up a midnight rendition of Auld Lang Syne on my trumpet when 2012 became 2013. (My friend Joel even tried his hand at deejaying on a new keyboard synthesizer that he bought for his kids, but we won’t talk about that…deadmau5 he is not! 🙂 )

These times of entertainment with family and friends are not just throw-away moments in our lives. They don’t matter less than time spent at our jobs or in carrying out the mundane tasks of home life. In fact, these times of entertainment may be the most important moments of our lives. Often this is when we feel most connected with others, when we grow and solidify relationships, and when we know that we matter to the people in our lives. And even our entertainment in solitude—our alone time listening to music, watching television, or making music for pure enjoyment—can be important moments to us as human beings. These can be critical opportunities for identity development and intrapersonal nurturing. By the music and other entertainment we choose, we can learn about ourselves, and better establish who we are.

So yes, let’s continue to get the word out that music is not merely entertainment. And let’s also not forget that entertainment itself is not just entertainment.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: Norman Rockwell on WikiPaintings.

My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship

With the American political season culminating (finally!) in November with election day, I couldn’t help but identify some musical equivalents of the campaigning and posturing that had been going on. It occurred to me that some people speak about their preferred music with the same fervor that political devotees crusade for their preferred candidate. And much like it is with party loyalists, often touting a favored style of music can go hand in hand with condemning whatever’s perceived as the opposition. While I’m not interested in entering the political arena with my blog, I will offer a position about partisan musicianship: it does not serve anyone’s best interest for music people—be they performers, teachers, or listening connoisseurs—to disparage other musicians and styles in an effort promote their own.

Let me be specific. I don’t believe that the long-term success of classical music depends on convincing enough of the general public that popular music is comparatively inferior. Similarly, attendance at jazz concerts will not likely grow through its supporters taking to Facebook to mock the musicianship of performers like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. And toward the other side of the aisle, I’d say that no one is in a position to dismiss classical music and jazz as boring or weird before making an effort to understand the cultures, values, and purposes of these styles.

Musical exclusivists can easily condemn non-preferred styles if they judge all music by the same set of standards. Comparing apples to oranges is a well-known no-no, but unfortunately it’s still done in music circles. “Quality” is defined differently across the diverse styles that make up Western music. Classical music tends to value precise performance of a notated score; compositions are largely judged by things like harmonic and textural sophistication and extended structural development. Jazz places a premium on harmonic complexity and rhythmic variation, with improvisatory performance being an important hallmark. Popular music typically values creativity outside of harmonic complexity, instead relying on sound (timbre) combinations, rhythmic groove, and melodic memorability; live performances are expected to have a strong visual component, through facial/bodily expression, gesture and dance, and performer-audience interaction. If you apply the values of one musical style to another, you can quickly reject it as bad music. Calling a pop song bad music because it uses only three chords is like calling a classical composition bad music because you can’t sing along to the melody after one hearing. Yes, the crisp texture of an apple makes for a really bad orange.

Several months ago, in the throes of the political campaigning, I commented on Facebook that it was easy for me to dismiss people’s opinion of what is the best thing—be it a political party, social cause, or musical style—when that thing corresponds exactly to what’s familiar and deeply assimilated by them. In such cases, I wonder whether they ever adopted that thing because they were convinced of its merits, or whether they “just know” it’s the best because it’s what they’re used to. What gets my full attention, however, is when someone espouses a thing in which they do not have such an obvious vested interest. I don’t often encounter this. It’s far more common to find people making cases for what is personally dear to them, sometimes doing so in pretty unpleasant ways. When followers of a cause defend it so harshly, I suspect that they’re actually hindering the advancement of it.

Perhaps it’s human nature, when considering unfamiliar things, to compare them to what we already know and are comfortable with. In response to my comment on Facebook, my friend Chris Varga offered me an excerpt from the book The Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing, by David Berkman. In it, this highly accomplished musician encourages his readers to listen to music without deciding whether or not they like it. Berkman says:

That’s difficult to do. For many people, deciding whether or not they like a piece of music is the first thing they think of when they hear a new piece. Often younger players have strong ideas about who they like and who they don’t. I still have favorite players…but I am more appreciative of more players now than when I was younger. A lot more of them are just too good not to like, even if you don’t want to sound like them yourself.

I’d like to see more musicians striving to be pluralists, accepting and even applauding those whose music making is different than their own. And here’s where I acknowledge that my musical-political analogies eventually break down. I recognize that in politics, there are important moral issues and governmental policies being debated, and that there truly are positions in opposition to each other. But I think this is very rarely the case in music. People are capable of enjoying a huge variety of musical styles, and they can all coexist on our iPods! So though I’m skeptical about every seeing much bi-partisan action in the political arena, I hold out much greater hope for music.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: junsjazz on Flickr Creative Commons.