Pianists have greater desire to learn but feel less competent than guitarists

Piano keysTwo musical instruments — guitars and pianos — have their own unique sounds and methods of play. But do the two instruments also have their own unique motivational factors?

Research published online June 20 in Psychology of Music has shed light on some interesting similarities and differences between guitarists and pianists.

“Our results appear to show that pianists are working hard at perfecting their instrument but ironically emerging with less perceived competence and willingness to play,” said Peter D. MacIntyre of Cape Breton University, who co-authored the study with Gillian K. Potter. “We think that this pattern of results is connected to piano being taught in a more rigid, formal manner to more students, compared with guitarists. Pianists seem to be under more pressure to learn specific musical structures in specific ways; guitarists often learn with more freedom and autonomy.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 292 guitarists and 307 pianists. They found pianists showed significantly higher motivational intensity and desire to learn. Pianists also showed higher levels of introjected regulation, meaning they felt obligated to practice their instrument.

Overall, the musicians reported that self-determined motives were stronger than external motives.

“It is interesting, and somewhat unexpected, that the correlations among the motivation variables are very similar between the two groups of musicians,” MacIntyre added. “We did not see evidence of differences in the structure of motivation, i.e. how motivation variables fit together, between guitarists and pianists. For example, both guitarists and pianists showed high levels of intrinsic motivation. But we did find that pianists perceive themselves overall as less competent and are more hesitant to play their instrument.”

MacIntyre and Potter also found a big difference between guitarists and pianists when it came to composing music. Nearly twice as many guitarists reported writing music than pianists. In addition, 40 percent of pianists said they had no intention to learn to write music in the future compared to only 13.5 percent of guitarists.

“I am surprised that there are not more studies on the motivational effects of writing music,” MacIntyre told PsyPost. “In our study, we found that almost 90 percent of guitarists either write music or plan to begin writing music. As a group, guitarists show a lot of diversity but have at least two things in common: calloused fingers and a desire to write music.”

“We found this result intriguing. Most often, I think of writing music on the piano rather than the guitar, but our sample shows guitar players are creating their own music in large numbers.”

The study found that writing music was associated with higher levels of willingness to play, musical self-esteem, intensity of effort, and desire to learn.

“In terms of motivation, our findings show that people who write their own music report higher perceived competence and musical self-esteem, and they exert more effort, have a greater desire to continue learning, and feel more willing to play in formal and informal settings,” MacIntyre explained. “This suggests that writing is associated with a very strong music motivation profile.”

MacIntyre and Potter believe musical composition is a fruitful area for new psychological research.

“As a follow-up, our research team is undertaking a study, led by Gillian Potter, among songwriters to examine how writing music affects identity development,” MacIntyre told PsyPost. “Writing music can be such a personal experience, often tapping into deeply felt emotion and laying bare the most personal experiences. Music is a potentially rich area in which to study the links among motivation, creativity and identity.”

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