Elementary school children who have confidence in their own musical abilities are more likely to continue their music education through middle school, while those with poor musical self-concept are more likely to opt out of music class — regardless of their true talent for singing or even their love of music, according to new research at Northwestern University.
For the study, the researchers took a close look at the attitudes and beliefs that help determine whether children will continue to take music classes in middle school and how these factors relate 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 Dr. Steven Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. “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.”
Although music is a required subject in elementary school, only 34 percent of U.S. students go on to register for elective music instruction when they enter middle school, according to recent statistics.
To gain a better understanding of why so many students choose to opt out of music class, Demorest, with co-authors Jamey Kelley and Peter Pfordresher, surveyed 319 sixth-graders from five elementary schools. The students were asked about their family background, attitudes 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 middle school.
The study 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 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, 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.”
This research builds on a previous study, published in the journal Music Perception, which suggested that the ability to sing accurately is more of a skill than a talent — meaning it gets better with practice. In that study, Demorest and Pfordresher compared the singing accuracy of three groups: kindergartners, sixth graders, and college-aged adults.
The researchers 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 kindergartners 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 working on 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.
The new findings are published in the Journal of Research in Music Education.