Latest exam updates

Motivation in music learning: part 2

6 years ago

  Understanding your students’ motivations can make a big difference to your teaching and to their learning experiences. In the second of four articles, Nigel Scaife, ABRSM’s Syllabus Director, looks at ways of understanding motivation and the ideas of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

  • Read part one

Motivation has been described as the fuel of human behaviour. Understanding how this fuel drives learning for students is not only about knowing who they are, but also about knowing what helps or hinders them in fulfilling their potential. As musicians and teachers we sometimes forget that musical learning is different to the learning required in many knowledge-based subjects, such as maths or history. Musical learning is multifaceted, encompassing the development of physical coordination and technique, emotional expression, creativity, knowledge and cognitive skills. And it is partly because music learning is so wide-ranging that the factors that motivate progress are so complex.

Motivation in action

So, how can teachers discover how motivated their students are? One way is through observing behaviour. There are typically four categories of behaviour that relate to motivation.

  • Choice and preference for an activity, such as choosing to practise rather than playing a computer game.
  • Intensity – how much students involve themselves in an activity, such as focusing on a passage that needs to be mastered.
  • Persistence – in practising, for example. The extent to which they are able to ‘stick with it’.
  • Quality of engagement with learning, such as using effective practice strategies to make sustained progress.

Hidden factors

It is certainly easier to judge motivation through observation and through listening to what a student, or perhaps parent, says than it is to assess more hidden factors, such as a student’s values or sense of self. But understanding how students think and feel about their learning can be crucial to maintaining their motivation. Teachers need to build strong teacher-learner relationships so that students can express their hopes, fears and aspirations. This can give teachers the insight they need to keep students on track and ensure continued progress.

Human will and needs

Early motivation theories were based on the study of human will and needs. While motivation to achieve is not a primary need, such as satisfying hunger, it is seen as a secondary one. Some suggest that this need is established at an early age in response to upbringing. And although a previously un-motivated child can be transformed by a new teacher or experience of success, early environment is still important, especially in terms of role models, opportunities to learn and appropriate teaching.

Feeling and thought

More recently, ‘social cognitive’ theories have focused on internal factors such as:

  • the learner’s own expectations;
  • reactions to success and failure;
  • and values and sense of self.

This area of motivation research deals with two internal psychological systems:

  • affect – how people feel emotionally;
  • and cognition – how they think.

The emotions students show when learning can help teachers understand their motivation. Are they anxious when performing or do they experience enjoyment and pleasure? How do they respond to different challenges? Creating a learning environment in which the student feels safe to take risks and to explore music making freely and without fear is crucial. Ensuring that students internalise their music through audiation, and take ownership of its emotional content is equally important. Feelings, or ‘affect’, also play a part in the way students respond to feedback. The cognitive system deals with how thoughts influence motivation. The way we talk or think about a subject reveals something about what is important to us, and this can then influence what we actually do. Research has found that factors that influence actions and emotions also influence thought. If teachers find out more about their students, through discussion of their musical life generally, the way they learn, performance issues and what their musical goals are, they tap into the inner world of feeling and thought, which profoundly influences motivation.

Helping students to motivate themselves

Can teachers actually motivate their students? Perhaps a little, but what is far more important is to create an environment where students can become self-motivated, in a sustained way. For a long time psychologists have identified two primary sources of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation

TeachingExtrinsic motivation is based on the ‘carrot and stick’ principle. The idea that rewards encourage continued action while punishments discourage it seems like common sense. However, many experiments have proved that rewards often don’t work. This is partly because the person offering the reward has control over the person receiving it, something which can be resented by students. Contingent rewards which adopt a scenario of ‘if you do this, then you’ll get that’ force people to give up some autonomy. There is also an implicit assumption that the task being rewarded must be an unpleasant one. Post-task rewards, however, can be effective in the short-term, provided they are based on specific outcomes. They can even act as incentives. Extrinsic motivation can operate on different levels, from doing something in order to gain parental approval to avoiding feelings of guilt if it is not done. One approach identifies four stages which move towards intrinsic motivation:

  • External regulation – students participate in music to gain rewards and avoid punishment.
  • Introjected regulation – students participate because they think they ought to and will feel guilty if they don’t.
  • Identified regulation – students engage in music because it’s important to them. They may want to do well in an exam or performance – as a personal goal.
  • Integrated regulation – students integrate internal and external sources of motivation and engage with music because of its importance to their own sense of self.

Intrinsic motivation

When the reward comes from taking part in the activity itself, learners are said to be intrinsically motivated. So teachers should be aiming to create an environment that encourages intrinsic motivation. One influential approach (by psychologists Deci and Ryan) focuses on three of our most fundamental needs. If these needs are met, then people are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and experience a sense of well-being. Intrinsically motivated people seek out challenges which satisfy their need for Competence, Autonomy and Relationship – easily remembered through the acronym CAR.

Competence – the drive to master aspects of our environment

Being aware that competence is gradually increasing through regularly meeting challenges is inherently motivating. Knowing that progress is being made is probably the single greatest motivator of all. So shining a light on that progress so that students recognise their achievements is important. After all, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success! Preparing for and taking exams is one way to measure progress. But, of course, students also need to make progress and have that regularly acknowledged.

Autonomy – the need to experience self-determination, to control one’s own behaviour, and to make choices without external intervention

Intrinsically motivated students often do better when they can make their own choices, so teachers need to consider the extent to which they provide such opportunities in lessons. Allowing students to have choice over what they learn and encouraging them to set their own challenges can have a positive impact on learning. Setting goals together transfers responsibility to students and gives them ownership of their learning. Similarly, by playing with music through improvisation, or playing by ear, students can take ownership of their music making. On the other hand, external pressures, such as deadlines or too much evaluation and surveillance, can reduce intrinsic motivation.

Relationship – the need to belong and to experience relationships with others.

The relationship learners have with their teachers is a key factor in motivation. Students need to know that they are liked, respected and valued. It is also important that music making is seen as a social, shared activity. So finding opportunities for duet or ensemble playing can support a collaborative learning environment. Learning in a social environment and making music together is a natural activity and, of course, good fun!

Intrinsic motivation and ‘flow’

TeachingIntrinsically motivated people also tend to experience what the Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi has called ‘flow’ – the sensation people feel when they act with total involvement. When experiencing this state, people can be so intensely involved in the activity that they lose awareness of time and space. People tend to seek this state for itself, rather than for any reward. In a flow state there’s a balance between the degree of challenge in an activity and the student’s ability to meet that challenge. Popular computer games do this brilliantly, so most children understand the notion of flow very well! If an activity is not challenging enough, then it tends to become boring, but if challenges are too great the student will become de-motivated and give up. Tackling one concept at a time can help to ensure that the student has enough ‘brain space’ to take on the new learning and not be overwhelmed. So it’s important to set challenges at the right level, which are carefully matched to current skills. If students have flow experiences when making music, they will not want to give up!

This article is a web-only feature of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Back to listing

Latest edition


Contact us

We are always interested in hearing your feedback on our magazine. Please contact the Libretto editor to share your thoughts. Lucy North T+44 (0)20 7467 8253

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By using our website, you are agreeing to our cookie policy and consent to our use of cookies. Find out more.