If I Can Be an Athlete, Anyone Can Be a Musician!

An Argument for “Everyday Musicality”

“Come on, athletes!” shouts Murph, the trainer leading class at Title Boxing. My gloves pound the bag. Sweat drips down my forehead as my muscles work. “Let’s do this, athletes! Give it everything you’ve got!” I respond by punching harder, never doubting my power. I am an athlete.

Until my mid-30s, “athlete” was never a label I would’ve applied to myself. Growing up, I was always the fat kid. When tasked with running a mile around the block in high school P.E. class, I hitched a ride in a passing classmate’s car just to avoid the ordeal. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I did get caught—and detention.) Running and all other forms of exercise were not something I saw as “for me,” and any time I couldn’t avoid being subjected to these activities, I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my ineptitude. I thought it was the result of something lacking inside of me. I was fat, so sports were just not my “thing.” Once I was no longer required to participate in physical education in school, I rarely engaged in exercise, and when I did, it was usually to punish myself for being overweight. Exercise was a torture that I couldn’t wait to escape.

Fast-forward to 2013, when a bathroom renovation left me without a shower for several weeks.  I discovered a Groupon for a local gym that only offered group fitness classes. In order to use their shower, I would need to first show up for a 45-minute kickboxing or boot-camp class. After a while, I could see and feel muscles I didn’t even know I had, and I was actually enjoying it! Six years and two gyms later, I’m still working out because it makes me feel strong, healthy, and powerful. Am I going to the Olympics? No. Will anyone pay me to participate in a sport? No. Am I an athlete? Yes. Even when I can’t quite keep up with a certain combination, I still keep trying. It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks of me or how I compare to other people or the fact that I will never box at a professional level. I do it because I enjoy it! I may not be a professional athlete, but I’m an athlete nonetheless. Just ask Murph…

Murph and me after class at Title Boxing

As a music teacher, my experiences in Murph’s boxing classes got me thinking about students’ experiences in school music classes. So often music educators (whether they know it or not) send the message that music is for some people and not others. This can be implied via one’s teaching philosophy, such as when a teacher says their goal is to help students become intelligent audience-members and consumers of music (implying that only some can become music makers). The message that music is not “for them” may be communicated implicitly to students—such as when they are not accepted into particular school performing groups—while for others, the message is communicated explicitly, such as being told by a music teacher not to sing or simply not being called on for singing.1 Even the notable music education scholar Edwin E. Gordon was labeled by his elementary school music teacher as one of the “blackbirds”—students who were instructed to sit in the back of the classroom and listen to the “bluebirds” sing and were told to move their lips but not actually sing during performances.2 With the exception of Gordon, the end result is usually the same, whether the judgement is explicit or implicit: most individuals who believe they have been deemed “unmusical” tend to give up on music and cease music-making for the rest of their lives.

Sadly, I witness this firsthand in my university teaching on a regular basis. I teach a required music course for undergraduate (non-music) education majors, and every semester I encounter students who believe they are not musical, can’t sing, or are “tone-deaf.” Many of them feel the same dread toward singing that I used to feel toward exercise!

Despite what many people think, music is not an innate talent that resides in some people but not in others. Like language, music is a human activity, and every person is born with the potential to make music. Just as we are all hardwired to be responsive to language and eventually think and become fluent in our native language, every infant is born with the capacity to respond to music and eventually think in musical sound and become fluent in their native music. Ethnomusicologists have studied a number of cultures around the world in which there is no concept of musical ability as an “innate talent.”3 Instead, people in these cultures believe every individual has the potential to become a competent music-maker—and virtually everyone does!

In addition to dispelling the myth that music is an innate talent, we need to develop another concept of what it means to be “a musician.”  In a recent research study of the musical ability beliefs and musical self-concepts of fourth-grade students,4 I found that they were hesitant to call themselves “musicians” because they made mistakes or were not “the best”—in other words, because they believed they were not good enough to be professionals. These students seemed to be oblivious to the idea of being an amateur musician, that making music for yourself as a part of your daily life can be incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable and that ANYONE can do it!

Instead of perpetuating the idea that only those who perform for an audience are worthy of making music, we need to develop an additional definition of what it means to be “a musician” based on what ethnomusicologist John Blacking referred to as “average musical ability”:

If average linguistic ability is taken to refer to the fact that almost every member of every known human society is able to communicate with [others] in at least one language, average musical ability should refer to a similarly universal ability to communicate in music.5

In this conception of musical ability, you do not have to be a highly-skilled performer to be considered musically competent and to engage in making music as a valuable and meaningful part of your daily life.

We experience the idea of “average linguistic ability” every single day: Virtually everyone learns to speak competently and express themselves through their native language, regardless of whether public speaking will be a part of their career, because we just assume that everyone will. As I learned in Murph’s boxing class, everyone can be an athlete, in that we all can develop “average athletic ability.” Everyone can move their body, build muscle, and get fit. Similarly, musical potential does indeed lie in every human being, but in order to realize it, we must foster an appreciation for the musicality of which everyone is capable. 

Maybe you don’t sing or play well enough that people would pay to listen to you. Maybe you’re not going to become the next Beyoncé. But every single human being can learn to sing or play an instrument. We can all be “musicians” if we recognize that, while a career in music may not happen for everyone, we can all develop everyday musical competence. And this “everyday musicality” is enough.

Heather Shouldice is an Associate Professor of Music Education at Eastern Michigan University.

Notes

  1. Carlos R. Abril, “I Have a Voice But I Just Can’t Sing: A Narrative Investigation of Singing and Social Anxiety,” Music Education Research 9, no. 1 (2007): 1-15; Eve Ruddock, “Sort of in Your Blood: Inherent Musicality Survives Cultural Judgement,” Research Studies in Music Education 34, no. 2 (2012): 207-221; Nicola Swain and Sally Bodkin-Allen, “Can’t Sing? Won’t Sing? Aotearoa/New Zealand ‘Tone-deaf’ Early Childhood Teachers’ Musical Beliefs,” British Journal of Music Education 31, no, 3: 245-263; Colleen Whidden, “Hearing the Voice of Non-singers: Culture, Context, and Connection,” in Issues of Identity in Music Education: Narratives and Practices, ed. Linda K. Thompson and Mark Robin Campbell (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 65-90.
  2. Edwin E. Gordon, Discovering Music from the Inside Out (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2014).
  3. John Blacking, “Towards a Theory of Musical Competence,” in Man: Anthropological Essays Presented to O. F. Raum, ed. E. J. Jager (Cape Town, South Africa: C. Struik, 1971), 19-34; Lisa Huisman Koops, “‘Denuy jangal seen bopp’ (They Teach Themselves): Children’s Music Learning in The Gambia,” Journal of Research in Music Education, 58, no. 1 (2010): 20-36; Kedmon Mapana, “The Musical Enculturation and Education of Wagogo Children,” British Journal of Music Education, 28, no. 3 (2011): 339-351; Joan Russell, “A ‘Place’ for Every Voice: The Role of Culture in the Development of Singing Expertise,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 31, no. 4 (1997): 95-109; Thomas Turino, ” The Coherence of Social Style and Musical Creation Among the Aymara in Southern Peru,” Ethnomusicology 33, no. 1 (1989): 1-30.
  4. Heather Nelson Shouldice, “An Investigation of Musical Ability Beliefs and Self-Perceptions Among Fourth-Grade Students” (research poster presentation, 7th International Conference on Music Learning Theory, Chicago, IL, July 31, 2019).
  5. John Blacking, “Towards a Theory of Musical Competence,” in Man: Anthropological Essays Presented to O. F. Raum, ed. E. J. Jager (Cape Town, South Africa: C. Struik, 1971), 22.