Mindsets and Musicians

Mindsets and Musicians

Ever thought about the mindset of your students? Dweck’s (1988) theory of intelligence is relevant here as it is a self-belief, like self-efficacy. Dweck believes that there are two types mindsets, one is incremental or changeable, the other is entity, an unchangeable, fixed trait. Entity mindsets tend to show low self-belief in capabilities, low intrinsic motivation, defensive reactions to difficulty and learning. Incremental mindsets are likely to have a mastery approach to learning, which leads to persistence in the face of challenges, intrinsic motivation and attributing effort to achievement. Ultimately, an incremental mindset assists in the development persistence and motivation to learn (Elliot & Dweck, 2005).

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Hargreaves and Marshall (2003) suggest that “children actively construct their own musical identities which can determine skill, confidence and achievement” (p.265). Student mindset beliefs develop as a result of their experiences and through the opinions of others, possibly generating a particular mindset within the student.

How many times do we hear the label ‘musically gifted’ or a ‘musically talented’ child which helps to further cement the fixed ability and entity mindsets. The message sent to students is that their success will depend on their innate ability which have have been given at birth, thus unchangeable. This type of self-belief closes minds to the notion that they are capable of achieving their goals. This type of message is common among the public about the understanding and development of top-level musicians (McPherson, 2007).

Have we dug deep enough to understand why some young musicians seem to advance at a phenomenal rate and are labelled ‘prodigy’ or ‘musically gifted’? Suppose these young musicians are intelligent individuals which have the right mindset and motivation, and all the skills of self-regulation, self-efficacy, access to excellent teachers and family support, which allows them to advance rapidly to the point of expertise. That would help to explain a great deal of the myth of child prodigy.

What are we doing and saying during instrumental lessons which can have an effect on student mindset and motivation? Are we unknowingly promote the urban legend of the musically gifted and talented with our students, or do we promote the understanding that effort attributions and incremental mindset are key factors in musical achievement? Just a thought.


Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256-273.

Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (2005). Self-Theories: Their impact on competence motivation and acquisition. The handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guildford.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. A. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 77, 263-273.

McPherson, G. (2007). Children’s motivation to study music in schools. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the XVI national conference of the Australian Society for Music Education, Perth.

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