Motivation for Music students

‘Maths to 18’? Music for life!

Jon Hargreaves, Artistic Director, Composer and Conductor also serves as a Senior Research Fellow at Falmouth University. We recently asked Jon if he could delve into the world of ‘motivation’ and how it impacts a music student’s immediate and long-term behaviours and how the music teacher can influence the student to keep going!

There has been a rush to fill the perceived hole punched into core, ‘STEM’ subject knowledge by home schooling, now schools have reopened. A familiar pattern in times of economic challenge: I’m writing this on the day Rishi Sunak has announced ‘Maths to 18’ – compulsory maths for all until the age of 18; and uptake is down for music and the arts. The challenge for music educators in times like these is to keep students motivated. In this blog I outline motivation theories and research in music psychology and education. Your teaching probably already embraces lots of these down-to-earth ideas, intuitively or knowingly. I’ll come at it from three angles: ‘Getting going’, ‘Keep going’, and ‘Don’t drop out!’, and as an interlude I’ve included a study looking at how motivation changes as learners move through the grades system. First, though, there’s a crucial high-order distinction to be made.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsically motivated learning is undertaken for its own sake, whereas in extrinsic motivation, the perceived benefits lie beyond the task at hand. Simple enough, although this is often reduced to ‘doing it for the love of it’ [intrinsic] vs. ‘doing it to get a reward’ [extrinsic], the latter seeming less worthy or authentic. It’s easy to see intrinsic motivation as the only True North – after all, the evidence shows that it’s the passion for playing that sustains long-term engagement. ‘Goal-directedness’ can add a further layer of confusion, often mistakenly conflated with extrinsic motivation. Very few tasks are purely intrinsically or extrinsically motivating, and learners themselves are not inherently motivated one way or the other (albeit some parents force lessons on their children). To equate intrinsic motivation with enjoyment of the task, and extrinsic with display isn’t quite the whole truth.

Actually, intrinsic motivation implies a virtuous circle: [you love it when you play more Û you spend more of your life doing so], which develops aspects of the whole person, such as love, interest, commitment, confidence, discipline. So intrinsic motivation can be seen as a mean to an end: self-development. This is what sustains the passion to keep going. Conversely, an extrinsic motivator can also contribute to self-efficacy, confidence, aspiration management – I was struck, interviewing a 13-year-old who described himself as a ‘good Grade-2 guitarist’. This may well have been for my benefit, but it was also for his.

What matters is the meanings attached to activity and attainment, and the onus is on educators to encourage healthy, sustainable attachments. This could well mean finding a productive balance between extrinsic and intrinsic, in the knowledge that love of ‘just doing it’ is what sustains enthusiasm at the day-to-day, week in/week out level. Neither the task, nor the badge, but the person – whose value system might incorporate both – should come first.

‘Getting Going’

Music in our Lives (McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner, 2012) reports on the role played by music in the lives of 150 young people in Sydney, from their 7th to their 22nd birthdays. The authors look at the early days of music making through the lens of ‘Interest theory’. In this view, a learner’s interest arises from the situations that they are in, and has scope to become their own, individual interest. In stage 1 of the early, ‘Situational’ phase, interest might be triggered by an emotional response to an external situation – say, the excitement of attending a live performance, or close-up exposure to a musical instrument; and hopefully in stage 2, it would be maintained, through focussed attention and persistence. The factor that differentiates this from the ‘Individual Interest’ phase is the level of external support and affirmation – emotional responses are stimulated and managed by parents, teachers and others. For those whose interest continues, intellectual curiosity and emotional rewards first emerge out of the desire to engage. Then, in the final, developed part of this phase, those pay-offs become associated with the activity itself for the learner, outweighing frustrations: the interest resides in the individual.

The implication for educators and parents is clear – awareness of emotional response to engagement is important in the early days of learning. Affect might even be modelled to begin with, and then supported, as young learners start to engage for themselves. But as interest grows, there is a need to leave room for learners to observe and experience their responses independently. Encouraging this could be as simple as asking, ’How did you enjoy that?’, or ‘How did that make you feel?’, until such emotional scaffolding isn’t required.

‘Keep Going’

‘Keeping them going’ is the fundamental task for vocal and instrumental teachers: helping learners to stay engaged enough to keep on practising, and, as part of the deal, to help them develop the psychological and emotional resources needed to do so. Music practice research has its own literature. Our present concern is to understand the motivation that underpins it. O’Neill and McPherson (2002) review various theories. For the purposes of this blog, I have mapped each onto a particular aspect of ‘keeping going’, although, as is their nature, the theories themselves have more wide-ranging implications than are presented here.

Motivating Practice: ‘Expectancy-Value’

‘Expectancy-Value’ theory has been used to study motivation towards homework in other school subjects, such as maths and reading. The idea is that the value of a given activity is different for each individual, and it can be worked out by setting the intrinsic and extrinsic gains offered by attainment against the perceived cost to the learner. The result of that ‘equation’ is weighed up against the expectation of success or failure, and to determine the level of motivation, so the theory goes. In simple, albeit blunt terms, the questions governing motivation are: ‘Can I do it?’ (expectancy), and ‘Is it worth it?’ (value).

Music in our Lives incorporates all the above in a yet more sophisticated, data-informed framework, which also considers the role played by teachers and parents. Inevitably, learners are influenced by the people around them – for example, the support offered by parents who inevitably project and/or model their own goals and learning styles. The same applies to teachers of course, who, the authors found, are very quick to form opinions as to students’ potential for high achievement. Learners do pick up on this – some having a clear idea of where they stand in the teacher’s estimation from their first lesson. If there is a practical implication here, it’s to be conscious of our influence in shaping learners’ opinions of ‘whether they can do it’, and ‘whether it’s worth it’.

Emotional Resources I: Confidence

Any musician knows the importance of confidence, and research on ‘self-efficacy’ – a person’s beliefs about their own competence in a particular area – is relevant here. Researchers use questionnaires to measure confidence, so that they can assess its influence in different situations. Yoon’s (1997) study of 8 to 11-year-olds found that musical self-efficacy – belief in their musical competence – was influential on the choice to study music, and also to a boost in practice time.  Meanwhile, McPherson and McCormick (1999) even showed that self-efficacy was a determinant of exam marks.

As educators, the strength of our influence on learner confidence goes without saying. Stipek (1996) suggests learners’ self-efficacy can be boosted by breaking things down and teaching specific strategies, to improve learners’ focus; long-term goal setting, supported by short-term goals; balancing communicating your own expectations for your students with their own self-beliefs, and encouraging under-confident learners to take responsibility for their own progress – at the same time, at lower levels at least, not instilling anxiety about achievement; and as a matter of course, providing positive adult models.

Emotional Resources II: Inspiration and Challenge

The pioneering work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was first expounded in his seminal book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (1990). People are happiest when they are in flow states, says the theory: a person is totally absorbed in an activity for its own sake, to the extent that other concerns, including the sense of time, and with it, even the sense of self is lost. This is intrinsic motivation taken to the extreme! It sounds so transcendent that it could easily inspire scepticism – can one really have an ‘optimal experience’ teaching flute in the school broom cupboard?!...  And yet, which of us has not lost track of time whilst making music? It’s about setting the right conditions for learners to identify with the activity itself.

Flow requires certain conditions for flow states, and music making is ripe with their possibility. In flow, there is unambiguous, immediate feedback, and this is a given in music making: you play a note—you hear the sound. Clear goals are required: learners need to understand the task at hand, and to feel that outcomes are under their control. Also – and this is the important part for educators – flow states occur when the perceived level of challenge sits comfortably within the upper range of the learner’s perceived ability. If the challenge is perceived to be too high, anxiety will ensue; too low, boredom. Therefore, our task is twofold: to know learners well enough to anticipate their self-perception, relative to tasks of an appropriate level of difficulty.

Emotional Resources III: Resilience

Flow states cannot be depended upon. Inevitably, learners need to cope with things not working together ideally – sometimes things just don’t go well, so resilience is an important emotional resource. O’Neill and McPherson (2002) cite two relevant theories.

  • First: Carol Dweck’s famous work on self-theories. A self-theory is a set of self-beliefs, which might be fixed (the belief that you cannot change) or growth-oriented (that, incrementally, you can). Learning itself is a form of change, so this has clear import. Studying approaches to coping with failure in different mindsets, Dweck comments on ‘mastery-oriented’ motivation. She found that, where learners are intrinsically motivated in this way, they persist for far longer, and are better equipped to cope with failure than others. By contrast, those who are not oriented towards mastery tended to adopt maladaptive strategies in response to failure.
  • Second: Attribution theory. Beliefs about why you did well or badly are crucial for motivation. You might attribute success or failure to ability, effort, luck, difficulty of task, preparedness, and so on. Such attributions have three characteristics: whether they are internal/external to the individual, their stability/instability over time, and their controllability. It’s common sense that internal, stable, controllable attributions put learners in a stronger position. ‘Luck’, for example, is external, unstable, and uncontrollable, where ‘Ability’ is internal, typically viewed as stable, and controllable. The consequences of misplaced attributions can be far-reaching, in the context of a young person’s development. To young children, effort and ability go hand-in-hand, but from around ages 11-12 – the onset of adolescence, secondary schooling, and typically in music learning, a hike in difficulty level – differences in ability level start to show, which can lead to conclusions about children’s identities as musicians that prevent them from keeping going. Indeed, motivation itself needs must change as people develop.

Changes in motivational factors

In 2013 Hallam (reported in Hallam, 2017) studied 3352 musicians, ranging from beginners to conservatoire entry level. She identified six motivational factors, and, organising the data according to the most recent exam taken, she traced the changing importance of each factor. They are as follows:

  • support and social affirmation (for example, from parents, teachers, friends)
  • social life and enjoyment of musical activities (for example, going to concerts, musical friendships, listening to music)
  • enjoyment of performing
  • self-belief in musical ability
  • enjoyment of playing, lessons and practice
  • disliking practice

Moving upwards through the grades, the factors become considerably more important, with two exceptions. Support from parents, teachers, and friends, loses its motivational power, as musicians become independent in the higher grades; and ‘dislike of practice’ reaches its (de)motivational zenith at grade 4, spiking again at grade 6. These are the division points between the low, middle and higher grades (0-3, 4-5, 6-8), where practice demands are required than previously. Little wonder that dislike of practice is more influential, therefore. By contrast, positive motivators factors: self-belief, and enjoyment of performing diminish at grade 4, likewise self-belief and enjoyment of lessons and practice at grade 6 (notably, more social affirmation is needed at grade 7). Many educators know already that these transition points present challenges to motivation, but Hallam’s study breaks things down to a more detailed level, perhaps suggesting how learners might be supported at these points.

There are three sweet-spot grades: 2, 5 and 8. The relative few who reached the final grade were the most motivated by enjoyment of performance, by enjoyment of lessons and practice, by self-belief and by musical social life; conversely, they needed the least support and affirmation. At the end of the grades system, musicians have achieved a level of independence. Motivational factors are also boosted at grade 5: there is a marked rise in the importance of musical social life, of enjoyment of performing, of enjoyment of lessons and practice, and of self-belief; and a concomitant drop in the influence of disliking of practice as a (de)motivator. There could be many explanations – technical skill is sufficient to enable more advanced ensemble performance; this grade may also coincide with middle adolescence, and the opening-up of social life generally through music; and also, at this point music is likely a competence that distinguishes learners from their peers – a part of their accepted identity.

Hallam’s analysis suggest that there is something special about grade 2. Enjoyment of performing is a strong motivator, self-belief scores remarkably low, and social support and affirmation reaches its zenith as a motivator. The contrast between these last two is striking, suggesting that enjoyment is sustained by others, rather than by learners themselves. This accords with ‘Interest Theory’. Perhaps grade 2 coincides with the transition from Situational to Individual Interest; the point at which interest shifts to reside in the learner.

Don’t drop out!

The decision to stop making music is far from a desirable outcome for anyone trying to motivate a learner. O’Neill and McPherson (2002) report that 48% of 5 and 6-year-olds were interested in learning an instrument; halving to 25% at age 7; reducing to just 4% of non-paying children at age 11. The dropout figures for the Music in our Lives cohort similarly underline the vulnerability of music learning: 40% had stopped by the start of Year 7, doubling to 80% for Year 11; by the end of Year 13, only 2 of the original 152 were still playing.

What motivates dropout? In 2012, Evans, McPherson and Davidson noted that there had been plenty of research on the characteristics of people dropping out: predictors being socioeconomic status, scholastic achievement, behaviour in early lessons, and attitudes to practice. Little had been done to explain the decision itself. Using Deci and Ryan’s ‘Self-Determination’ theory, these authors sought to understand dropout in terms of three, often interrelated ‘psychological needs’. People need to feel a sense of competence (that they are achieving something), of relatedness (that they are socially connected and integrated), and of autonomy (that they have some control). If one of these is needs is denied, or if they are more effectively met elsewhere, the person may perceive the need to cease the activity. The study bore out the theory, as had similar studies in other areas. Awareness of this is surely valuable to music educators – in some sense, it provides a basis for spotting warning signs. But dropout is inevitable in the vast majority of cases, as we have seen.

What is the role in dropout for music educators? In recent years, researchers have been studying musical identities. In their recent article, MacDonald and Saarikallio (2022) propose a broadening of our conception of musical identity, as does Music in our Lives. The argument is that learners don’t cease to be musical, just because they stop lessons. Therefore, as educators, part of our job is to foster positive engagement with music – that might involve listening to vinyl, going to concerts, taking up another instrument ten years later, singing in the bath. In this context, it is so important to encourage intrinsic motivation, with its benefits for the (whole) developing individual, throughout the lifespan, not just in the ‘learning career’. ‘Maths to 18’? Music for life!


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Evans, P., McPherson, G. E., and Davidson, J. (2012). The role of psychological needs in ceasing music and music learning activities. Psychology of Music, 41(5), 598-617.

Hallam, S. (2017). Musical identity, learning and teaching. In: R. A. R. Macdonald, D. J. Hargreaves and D. Miell (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Musical Identities. Pp. 475-492. Oxford: OUP.

MacDonald, R., & Saarikallio, S. (2022). Musical identities in action: Embodied, situated, and dynamic. Musicae Scientiae, 26(4), 729–745.

McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J., and Faulkner, R. (2012). Music in our Lives. Oxford: OUP.

McPherson, G. E., and McCormick, J. (1999). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of musical practice. In: Bulletin for the Council of Research in Music Education. (141/Summer 1999 Special Issue) Pp. 98-102.

O’Neill and McPherson (2002). Motivation. In: The Science and Psychology of Music Performance ed. R. Parncutt and G. E. McPherson. Pp. 31-46. Oxford OUP

Stipek, D. J. (1996). Motivation and instruction. In: D. C. Berliner & R. C. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology. Pp. 85-113. Macmillan Library Reference UsA; Prentice Hall International.

Yoon, K. S. (1997, April). Exploring children’s motivation for instrumental music. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of The Society for Research in Child Development, Washington D. C.



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