The process of choosing musical instruments can be challenging for parents, teachers and adult players alike. So much so, that its been the subject of a whole body of research in recent decades. Studies have shown that the factors behind choosing musical instruments have a direct impact on the success of playing. Pairing the wrong instrument to a person, often results in them losing interest and dropping out. For parents who have invested time and money into their young person’s musical education, this can be incredibly frustrating! The time taken driving to practice and the costs associated with lessons, the instrument, its maintenance and accessories all add up! Not to mention the mental fatigue of trying to enforce practice time with a reluctant student!
After reviewing the published literature, I have collated a list of 8 reasons why students choose musical instruments. Are there any that you recognise?
1. Timbre preferences
Timbre refers to the perceived sound quality of a musical note that distinguishes different types of sounds or instruments. And it’s what makes a sound unique, even if two instruments play a note at the same pitch and loudness. For instance, a guitar and a piano playing the same note at the same volume sound distinctly different. Experienced musicians are able to recognise musical instruments, based on their timbres. Studies have shown students choose instruments that they simply ‘like the sound of.’ And there’s evidence that students who play an instrument they have a timbre preference for are more likely to perform better. Do you feel particularly drawn to certain groups of musical instruments?
2. Gender stereotypes
It’s proven we all associate certain musical instruments with being feminine or masculine. When ranked on a scale of feminine to masculine, the flute, violin and clarinet are regarded as the most feminine. The drums, trombone and trumpet are most masculine. Instruments such as the cello and saxophone are ranked somewhere in between. These gender associations have been found to develop from early childhood. In one study, parents were asked which instrument they would choose for their child. Girls were often empowered to try instruments that were right across the feminine-masculine spectrum. Boys were cautioned against choosing more feminine instruments in case they experienced teasing. Overall, girls tend to choose from a wider range of instruments than boys. Because of these gender-associations, it’s no surprise (but unfortunate) that male flute players are in such short supply.
3. Perceived difficulty of certain musical instruments
No one intentionally sets out to fail, so why would you choose an instrument you think is too hard to learn?! You wouldn’t! We all want results fast. With music this normally means succeeding in playing simple pieces within a few months. In some cases, certain instruments are actually not considered ‘suitable for beginners’ due to their greater degree of difficulty. These difficulties mostly relate to their physical size or the advanced technique to make a quality sound. Often these instruments are excluded from the initial selection process. Teaching strategies that build confidence early in students and address incorrect playing perceptions are essential in overcoming these initial anxieties.
4. The influence of music teachers
A survey of 249 music teachers in Canada investigated factors that influenced a teacher’s role in student’s selection of musical instruments. A teacher’s gender, their own instrument expertise, their need to balance school bands and meet their school’s expectations for musical achievement, and how they presented a student with instrument choice were all found to be important motivators. The data suggested that teachers can also naturally bias the instrument selection process by excluding instruments that are ‘not available,’ ‘beyond the teacher’s own expertise’, considered ‘too difficult for a beginner’ or ‘too popular’.
Other considerations such as weight or size of the instrument versus a student’s size were also commonly considered, as well as student’s academic ability, past musical experience and personality. The study found that the need for bands to have balanced instrumentation was the number one reason for manipulation of instrument selection. This is unsurprising as bands and teachers are evaluated on this very basis. In reality you can’t make a concert band with 20 flutes!
5. The influence of parents
Parents can often compel their students towards a particular instrument based on their own experiences of playing, a sense of family tradition or for the cognitive and social benefits they believe music playing can have for their child. It is well documented that active parental involvement (such as monitoring practice time and attendance at performances) can have a tremendous positive influence on learning. However negative pressure from parents can permanently turn them away from a musical education altogether.
6. Cultural background
There is no denying that many cultures have strong musical blood running through their veins. And their traditional music is strongly associated with particular instruments. Take the Flamenco music of Spain and the classical guitar, or Native American tribal music and the flute and drums. It makes sense that different timbre preferences have been cultivated through family heritage. A study comparing the preferences of American and Greek students with six instruments found this was indeed the case. The Greek students preferred the piano the most (which was least preferred by the American students). Other non-band instruments such as the guitar and violin were favoured by Greek students, whilst traditional band instruments such as the trumpet were favoured by Americans. You could say that playing a particular instrument is literally in your DNA!
The cost of musical instruments is largely irrelevant to children, but it is an important consideration for parents and adult learners. There are numerous costs associated with the flute which include rental or purchasing costs of the instrument, insurance, servicing, cleaning kits, music books, examination fees, competition entry fees. Private lesson fees cost approximately $50 to $70 per hour. The good news is flutes are common and are one of the cheaper instruments to begin on a second-hand quality student model (approximately $300 – $500). Affordable instrument rental schemes through schools can be accessed that reduce parent’s up-front costs.
8. The choices of siblings and friends
The music choices of older siblings often bias those of the younger siblings. Parents are reluctant to purchase new musical instruments if one is already sitting idle at home. In my own household, the one violin was passed down through three siblings! Older siblings with musical talent can be fantastic resources to younger ones. During schooling years the influence of peers is actually stronger than family, and influences student’s initial instrument choice, as well as later switching from one instrument to another.
As you can see, the motivations behind musical instrument choice are many and complex. And these are only some of them! Drop us a line in the comments section below. I’d love to hear how you chose to play flute! In my next blog I’ll list some simple steps to ensure playing flute is right for you.
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1. Bayley, J., An investigation of the process by which elementary and junior high school teachers prepare students to choose a musical instrument, T.A. Gerber, Editor. 2000, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
2. Creech, A., Learning a musical instrument: the case for parental support. Music Education Research, 2010. 12(1): p. 13-32.
3. Music Teachers Association of Queensland. Tuition Rates. Available from: https://www.mtaq.org.au/index.php/information/tuition-rates. Accessed 5 March 2017