RTRL.56: Student Preferences for Music learning And Music Courses (Pendergast & Robinson, 2020)


Pendergast, S., & Robinson, N. R. (2020). Secondary students’ preferences for various learning conditions and music courses: A comparison of school music, out-of-school music, and nonmusical participants. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(3), 264-285.

What did the researchers want to know?

In terms of music class, what are secondary students’ preferences for teacher role, group size, repertoire, and class options? Do these preferences differ by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or whether students participate in school music, out-of-school music, or no music? Why do some students choose not to participate in music?

What did the researchers do?

Pendergast and Robinson surveyed 827 middle and high school students from one urban and one suburban school district who were chosen through stratified random sampling to ensure diversity. The survey included items regarding demographics (gender, ethnicity, free/reduced lunch status, participation in school music, participation in out-of-school music), their learning condition preferences  (group sizes, amount of independent learning, degree of input on repertoire selection), and their interest in various music courses (including piano/guitar, composition with technology, popular music group, large ensemble, history/theory, and world music group).

Overall, the least preferred teacher role was exclusively teacher-led instruction, with only 23.0% of students preferring this option. Teachers sometimes leading was preferred by 43.5%, and learning independently with teacher intervention only when necessary was preferred by 33.5%. Among in-school music participants, only 20.1% preferred exclusively teacher-led instruction. In terms of group size, only 13.3% of students preferred exclusively large group, with 35.9% preferring small groups and 50.8% preferring a mix of large and small groups. In terms of repertoire choice, most students (61.8%) preferred when the teacher and students choose music together, with 28.7% preferring that students select all the music and only 9.6% preferring when teachers select all the music.

All students—even those who participate in school music—expressed the most interest in piano/guitar class. While large ensemble received the second-most interest from in-school music participants, it was rated second-to-last by out-of-school music participants and nonparticipants. The second and third most interesting to those students were music composition class with technology and popular music group.

Pendergast and Robinson found a significant difference in repertoire choice preferences by ethnicity, with Latinx and Black students significantly more likely to prefer that students choose the repertoire. When comparing preferences by music participation group, Pendergast and Robinson found that out-of-school participants and nonparticipants were significantly more likely to prefer small group learning and students choosing the repertoire learned.

When responding to questions on why they were not enrolled in school music, 80.1% of nonparticipants said they were not interested, while 19.6% said they don’t have time and less than 5% said they couldn’t afford an instrument. Among out-of-school music participants, 35.4% said they had no interest, 37% said they did not have time, 9.1% said they couldn’t afford an instrument, and 20.1% indicated “Other.”

What does this mean for my classroom?

While teacher-led, large-group instruction may be the dominant mode in traditional school music classes, this kind of learning may actually be least preferred by students. Music teachers might consider providing opportunities for small group and/or student-led learning experiences. Since Pendergast and Robinson found that very few students prefer having the teacher select all their repertoire, teachers also might consider allowing students to have a voice in choosing the music they will perform. This may be especially critical for teachers who work with Latinx and Black students, as these students were significantly more likely to prefer choosing their own repertoire. Small group learning and student-chosen repertoire may be especially powerful in attracting more students, as they were significantly more preferred by out-of-school participants and nonparticipants.

In addition to adjusting how current music courses operate, that out-of-school participants and nonparticipants rated large ensemble as one of their least desired music class options suggests we should consider adding other types of courses to the curriculum. Doing so might draw in students who are not interested in traditional band, orchestra, and choir offerings but would be interested in other types of much learning. Since over 80% of nonparticipants said they did not enroll in school music because they simply were not interested, it is possible that these students would enroll in another type of music offering they found more compelling. Piano/guitar, music composition class with technology, and popular music group may be promising options, as these were most preferred by out-of-school participants and nonparticipants.

RTRL.27: Who Enrolls in High School Music? (Elpus & Abril, 2019)


Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2019). Who enrolls in high school music? A national profile of U.S. students, 2009-2013. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(3), 323-338.

What did the researchers want to know?

What proportion of U.S. high school students enroll in ensemble and non-ensemble music courses, and what are the characteristics of students who enroll in ensemble music courses?

What did the researchers do?

Elpus and Abril utilized existing data on 25,210 high school students gathered via a nationally representative longitudinal study that followed students at 940 U.S. high schools. These data included demographic characteristics (e.g., sex, SES, race/ethnicity, prior academic achievement) as well as information from students’ high school transcripts, including whether they participated in a high school ensemble or non-ensemble music class. Elpus and Abril used bivariate and multivariate statistical analyses to identify demographic characteristics of music and nonmusic students and to investigate the unique impact of each characteristic.

Of the students who graduated in 2013, 24% had enrolled in one or more music ensembles during at least one year of high school. Choir had the largest percentage of participation (13%), followed by band (11%) and orchestra (2%). In terms of non-ensemble courses, only 3% of students had enrolled in a guitar class, 3% in a piano class, and less than 1% in a music technology course.

The table below shows cross-tabulations for the entire sample, ensemble students, and each type of ensemble:

Characteristics of Music Ensemble Students and the Full Population
(Elpus & Abril, 2019)

Statistical analysis revealed that differences between instrumental and non-instrumental were statistically significant in every characteristic except birth-assigned assigned sex. In contrast, choir students did not differ significantly from non-choir students for any characteristic except for birth-assigned sex.

In order to investigate the unique impact of each demographic characteristic, Elpus and Abril used logistic regression, which is a statistical analysis that attempts to “control for” (i.e., remove the effects of) certain variables. These results showed that the probability of enrolling in an ensemble music class increases with SES as well as with prior academic achievement (as measured by a standardized algebra test). However, the latter was not true for Black/African American students, for whom “the likelihood of ensemble enrollment decreases as academic achievement increases” (p. 331).

It is also interesting to note that the effects of SES and prior academic achievement were not significant among choir students. When looking at each type of ensemble separately, SES only predicted enrollment among band vs. non-band students, while prior academic achievement only predicted enrollment among instrumental vs. non-instrumental students. With the exception of gender, choral students were more representative of the larger student population than band/orchestra students.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elpus and Abril’s findings confirm that ensemble music courses are the most prevalent music offerings among U.S. high schools. We need to continue to think about how we might attract more students to participate in school music through non-ensemble courses. However, band and orchestra are disproportionately likely to enroll students of higher SES and higher prior academic achievement. Therefore, Elpus and Abril state, “the problem may not be in increasing the number of students in music courses (which is commonly heard in professional rhetoric) so much as ensuring that music courses are attracting a representative and wide cross-section of the general student population” (p. 334). As music educators, we can be aware of which types of students may tend to be less likely to enroll in ensemble music classes and actively work to recruit these students. 

Additionally, it is worth contemplating possible reasons why choir enrollment tends to be more reflective of the general population. Elpus and Abril suggest several possibilities:

  • The versatility of the singing voice and wide range of cultures and styles in choral music “might be more attractive to students from varying cultural backgrounds” (p. 335)
  • Choir may be “more readily available as an avenue of ensemble music-making for those high school students who, for any of a variety of reasons, did not begin to develop proficiency on a band or orchestra instrument in their earlier schooling” (p. 335).
  • “Choirs may require less time commitment and financial demands than band, which possibly makes them more attractive to students who have familial or work commitments and those of more limited financial means” (p. 335).

Based on these speculations, the following types of questions warrant reflection:

  • How might we increase the appeal and relevance of music course offerings to students from varying cultural backgrounds?
  • How might we provide avenues of entry into high school instrumental music classes for students who haven’t previously participated?
  • What time, financial, or other constraints may deter some students from participating in ensemble music classes? 
    • Are we being reasonable with the amount of time we expect from students outside of regular school hours?
      • Might our attendance and/or grading policies unfairly penalize students with work or family commitments?
      • Do we make the effort to truly listen to and take into consideration a student’s personal situation when they have a conflict?
    • What might be all the monetary costs—both obvious and hidden—to instrumental music participation (e.g., instrument rental/purchase, uniform fees, reeds and other supplies, private lessons)?
      • How realistic are these costs for students of lower SES? 
      • How might we help find ways to ease this financial burden and ensure that every student has the opportunity to participate and be successful in instrumental music?