New research has found that intelligence may play more of a role in a person’s ability to learn to play the piano than believing in oneself or having a “growth mindset”.
Researchers from Michigan State University conducted a study to investigate the relationship between intelligence, music aptitude and growth mindset in beginners learning to play the piano. Teaching 161 undergraduate students how to play “Happy Birthday” on the piano with the help of a video guide, the researchers found striking differences in their learning trajectories. With some learning quickly, playing perfectly within just 6 minutes of practice, some showed slower, yet steady improvement throughout the learning period, while others consistently performed poorly. This wide variation in skill acquisition puzzled researchers (Burgoyne: 2019).
Thus, to find out what was responsible for the variance, they measured the students’ cognitive abilities for variables including problem-solving skills and processing speed, as well as their music aptitude, such as their ability to differentiate between similar rhythms. They also conducted surveys to measure how much of a growth mindset each student had.
According to Alexander Burgoyne, a doctoral candidate in cognition and cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State University, “The correlation between growth mindset and piano performance was about as close to zero as possible...The results were surprising, because people have claimed that mindset plays an important role when students are confronted with challenges, like trying to learn a new musical instrument (Parker: 2019).”
Recognizing that results may differ for those who are already more proficient at playing the piano, Burgoyne said, “Our study examined one of the earliest stages of skill acquisition...Early experiences can be formative, but I would caution against drawing conclusions about skilled musicians based on our study of beginners (ibid.).”
This research comes after a recent review of research on mindset that found a weak correlation between having a growth mindset and academic achievement (Sisk: 2019). Finding that encouraging children to believe they can improve their abilities had no significant effect on their academic achievement, researchers hope that this research, combined with the more recent study on learning to play the piano, may inform education practices for better outcomes.
Burgoyne, Alexander P.: El Sevier
Parker, Kristen: Futurity
Sisk, Victoria F.: Sage Journals