RTRL.21: Teachers’ Interpretations of Music Aptitude (Reynolds & Hyun, 2004)


Reynolds, A. M., & Hyun, K. (2004). Understanding music aptitude: Teachers’ interpretations. Research Studies in Music Education, 23, 18-31.

What did the researchers want to know?

How do teachers understand the concept of music aptitude and estimate their students’ musical potential? How do these estimations compare to results of a standardized music aptitude test?

What did the researchers do?

Reynolds and Hyun’s study involved five general music teachers in the U.S. and five classroom teachers with music concentrations in South Korea who had never previously administered a standardized music aptitude test to their students. Both groups of teachers were asked to estimate their students’ music aptitudes (tonal and rhythm) and to describe their process and experience in doing so. Then the teachers administered Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA), a standardized test of elementary-age children’s music aptitude that includes tonal and rhythm subtests. Finally, each teacher completed an interview with one of the researchers.

What did the researchers find?

Teachers based their judgements of students’ music aptitudes on observable factors, such as ability to sing in tune or move to a steady beat. Their estimations also featured identification of the students they perceived as having the highest and lowest tonal/rhythm aptitudes in the class.

Without being asked to, all ten of the teachers compared their initial estimations of students’ music aptitudes to the IMMA results and were “surprised, shocked, and confused” by discrepancies between the two (p. 23). For example, one teacher in South Korea said, “I am shocked that a student who cannot even sing one note scores high on the test” (p. 23). Similarly, one American teacher puzzled, “If you have high tonal aptitude, how could you not know how to use a singing voice?” and was stumped that another student who “sings beautifully” and “likes to improvise” did not score high in comparison with the other students (p. 24). Teachers also admitted to allowing non-musical behaviors, such as participation or general academic achievement, influence their estimations of students’ music aptitude. “A student with a bad attitude I estimated low; I was surprised when the student scored high,” one South Korean teacher reflected (p. 24).

Ultimately, the teachers came to realize that their assumptions about music aptitude were based on students’ prior achievement in class, which does not necessarily reveal their true potential. As one American teacher reflected, “Estimates show who is achieving well, even if they didn’t do well on the test. [Pause.] Don’t give up on them just because they scored low, because they can still achieve” (p. 26).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students’ demonstrated musical achievement may not reflect their true potential. Rather than relying on our observations and subjective assumptions, a published test of music aptitude can more accurately and objectively measure each student’s musical potential, which can be helpful in identifying students who may be under-achieving.

The differentiation between music achievement and music aptitude was described extensively by Edwin E. Gordon. In his theorizing about music aptitude, Gordon posited that every individual has some level of music aptitude and thus can learn to make music with some level of success. By determining each student’s approximate level of music aptitude in various musical dimensions, the teacher can adapt instruction so that each student is appropriately challenged and thus can experience musical success and continued growth.

For an overview of Gordon’s theory of music aptitude and the published music aptitude tests he developed, click to read his monographs entitled Music Aptitude and Related Tests: An Introduction and Continuing Studies in Music Aptitudes.

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