What did the researchers want to know?
Do older students perceive stronger gender stereotypes among musical instruments than younger students? Can exposure to counter-stereotyped musicians affect students’ instrument preferences?
Does experience with playing an instrument by ear help students’ aural skill development?
What did the researchers do?
Pickering and Repacholi conducted a study involving 156 kindergarten students and 158 fourth-grade students. They showed the students videos of high-school musicians playing one of eight instruments that had previously been identified as either feminine (flute, violin, clarinet, cello) or masculine (drum, saxophone, trumpet, trombone) by Australian adults. The musicians wore school uniforms and all played the same musical excerpt. Participants were divided into three groups: one who viewed videos that aligned with gender stereotypes (e.g., females playing “feminine” instruments and males playing “masculine” instruments), one who viewed “counter-stereotyped” musicians (e.g., males playing “feminine” instruments and females playing “masculine” instruments), and one who simply viewed a static image of the instrument (with no musician visible). Pickering and Repacholi had each student view their assigned videos individually (in a room separate from their classroom) and then asked them which instrument they would most like to play.
Baker and Green examined 32 instrumental students (ages 10-14 years) taught by four teachers. Sixteen of the students experienced ear playing strategies, and the other 16 learned only from notation. Before the instruction period began, each student was given a test in which they were asked to listen to a recording of a short melody twice and then play it back on their instrument (without notation). Then, for a period of 7-10 weeks, half of the students experienced instruction that incorporated ear playing strategies. These included playing along with a recorded pop-funk bass riff by ear, playing a classical piece by ear, and choosing a piece in any style to learn by ear. After the instructional period, all students were tested again. Each student test performance recording was rated in terms of pitch accuracy, contour accuracy, rhythmic accuracy, tempo accuracy, and closure (stopping before or continuing until the end).
What did the researchers find?
Students in the control group (who saw static images rather than musicians) were significantly more likely to select instruments consistent with gender stereotypes than those inconsistent with gender stereotypes. There were, however, no significant differences in stereotyping by gender or age.
When all three groups were compared, Pickering and Repacholi found that students in the control group and the gender-consistent group were equally likely to prefer gender-consistent instruments. However, students exposed to the counter-examples were significantly less likely to choose gender-consistent instruments.
Analysis revealed that the students who had experienced instruction that included ear playing strategies achieved greater gains than students who had not.
What does this mean for my classroom?
The issue of gender-stereotyping of instruments persists in music education. However, the results of this study suggest that exposing students to musicians who defy gender stereotypes can help them resist rather than perpetuate these stereotypes. When choosing audio/video or live examples for use in the music classroom, music educators should be conscious of who is represented and work to actively combat gender stereotypes. In addition to noticing the gender of instrumentalists featured in the music classroom, teachers should also pay attention to the gender of composers and conductors so that students see women represented in these roles. Music educators might also notice who is (or is not) represented in our professional materials, such as textbooks and journals. (For example, this study shows that women have been much less likely to be represented as conductors in photographs published in the Music Educators Journal.) Similarly, teachers can notice the race/ethnicity of those who are represented. This noticing is the first step to taking action in ensuring that the representation in our classrooms is one that allows ALL students to see themselves represented in a diversity of musical roles.
Playing by ear is a skill that can be learned. Providing students experiences with playing instruments by ear will improve their ability to do so!
For more information on helping students develop their ear playing skills, see the book Hear, Listen, Play! How to Free Your Students’ Aural, Improvisation, and Performance Skills by Lucy Green.
For more information on informal music learning, see this post, which summarizes a study by Dr. Julie Derges Kastner and includes ideas for application and links to resources.