A theory of effort and learning a musical instrument

A theory of effort and learning a musical instrument

Children’s theories of ability and effort begin to include affective reactions with attributions from the ages of about 7-8 years (Weiner, 1986). Conceptions of effort and ability in children become more separate and distinct from around age 7-8. Emotions (affect responses) begin to be attached to success and failure experiences in children.

Children’s affective reactions:

Success to ability feel pride.

Failure to ability feel shame.

Success to effort feel proud.

Failure to effort feel guilty.


Affective reactions of others to success and failure of children:

Failure to ability feel pity.

Failure to effort feel angry.

It is import to understand that children’s attributions of effort and ability to success and failure experiences may be defective. Defective in that their understanding of their ability leading to successful outcomes may be based on misguided perceptions. A misguided perception of ability comes, for example, when a child is told they are so gifted, have a natural ability, they don’t need to try too hard to achieve well, everything is easy for them. This I have heard often in relation to instrumental music students. Based on the misguided notion of the child prodigy, but that is for another day.

What happens when the child has a failure experience? They may start to develop a perception that they lack ability. They believe that ability is a fixed trait, you either have it or you don’t, because that is what they have been told from an early age. The result from a failure or several failure experiences will be to start to avoiding tasks which are difficult in order to preserve their self-image of high ability with low effort. They do this because failure experiences attributed to ability have a debilitating affect response of shame. The reactions of significant others to a child’s failure experience will also reinforce a shame response through the use of pity.

None of these responses is informational feedback which the child can use to improve on the task. Often, the success on tasks is from appropriate effort, self-regulation, persistence and engagement over an extended period of time. This effort may or may not be observed or noticed, instead relying on perceptions of ability based on the final outcome—an exam result or a perfect performance. Of course, a child who regularly does effortful and goal-directed practice will experience greater gains than a child who is irregular and disorganised in their practice routines. The important point for teachers is how we guide students to realise it is their effort which leads them to successful experiences, not necessarily their natural ability.

Much research in neuroscience (see Hallam 2006 for a comprehensive review) demonstrates that we are all born with an innate musical capacity, however, it is how we train and develop it from a young age which determines levels of success and achievement and differentiates those who we perceived to be “musically gifted” from the rest of the population. Also important is the feedback and the messages we wend to children about their ability and effort. The distinction is important for the development of effective motivational strategies in the face of difficult tasks, such as learning a musical instrument.

Hallam, S. (2006). Music psychology in education. London: London : Institute of Education.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Leave a Reply