University Students' Reflections on School Music

Diane Stjern
North Dakota State University

Keywords: music education, attrition, university students, dropouts, survey


Many factors contribute to student attrition in school music programs. This article explores the factors most true to a group of sixty-seven university students' as they reflect on their involvement in music throughout middle and high school. Individuals who indicated they stopped participating in their school's music program were surveyed further to reveal their individual reasoning. The results were compared with previous research to illustrate the current factors causing student attrition in school music programs, and implications for music educators are also discussed.


A well-established goal of educators is to enrich students' lives by providing the highest quality education possible within each content area. Music educators are no exception. However, because music classes such as band, choir, and orchestra are beyond the general music curriculum and are not required for students to graduate, some music educators struggle to keep students in their programs. Several factors causing student attrition within school music programs have been identified within the research as holding true across many different populations. Before discussing these factors, what importance does music education have within students' lives?

Benefits of Music Education

Music education offers several benefits for participating students. Within the existing research, these include: higher academic achievement, social benefits, and personal benefits.

Multiple studies have shown that students participating in music find success within other subject areas, even outperforming non-music students on standardized tests. For example, Grade 12 students who had participated in music in Grade 11 outperformed their non-music peers on standardized achievement tests in biology and mathematics (Gouzouasis, Gugn, & Kishor, 2007). This study provided two rationalizations for music education: (a) participation in music does not hinder achievement in other subjects, (b) there is an association between students' music participation and success in other subjects as compared to their non-music peers. Gouzouasis et al stated, "…our results imply that music participation benefits students in ways that are directly or indirectly linked to higher academic achievement in general, and specifically in regard to mathematics and biology" (2007).

School music classes also benefit students by helping foster important relationships. Relationships are integral to students' lives as noted in a case study of young people in secondary schools (Gristy, 2012). Music classes, especially ensembles (including band, choir, orchestra, or other musical groups), provide positive social environments for fulfilling students' social needs. Morrison theorized the social dimension of music participation by arguing that musical ensembles are a school culture of their own. He stated that because students commit large amounts of time to musical ensembles, often outside of normal school hours for extra rehearsals, students develop social relationships with other music students. Morrison also argued that these relationships extend beyond music, including eating lunch together and hanging out outside of school (2001). Morrison's theory is affirmed by the case study of Adderley, Kennedy, and Berz, who found that music students often congregated together outside of music-related activities (2003).

Music students also experience personal benefits. A study of piano students illustrated how students felt an increase in self-esteem after three years of instruction (Costa-Giomi, 2004). Students also feel a sense of belonging when participating in music. Within a school context, students participating in music ensembles feel that "one is a part of something much greater than what the individual could produce alone" (Adderley, Kennedy & Berz, 2003). This sense of belonging comes from the teamwork that is essential for creating a successful ensemble. Therefore, participating in a musical ensemble gives students' an important place within a group, which satisfies each student's personal need to belong to a group as theorized by Maslow (1954).

These benefits of music education within the lives of students, while briefly discussed, give a basic framework and a sense of purpose to this study. Music educators already know these benefits, but students are not always consciously aware of how music affects their lives until they look back upon their music experiences. That being said, one cannot say that all students will look upon their school music experiences as positive. This is where student attrition within school music programs occurs.

Student Attrition within School Music

Student attrition, or a decrease in size or numbers, is a concern among many music educators. In most schools, musical ensembles are not required classes for students. Therefore, music educators do their absolute best to keep their students in their programs for as long as possible. Teachers need students in order to teach; within musical ensembles, they need students for certain instruments or to sing certain voice parts. The following literature discusses several factors causing student attrition in school music programs.

The first and most prevalent reason for dropping out of school music is a loss of interest in music (Duerksen, 1972). Tate's research of the factors most influencing student dropout in school music in Omaha echoes this finding (1962). A loss of interest can come about when instruction and/or music is not varied enough to pique students' interest (Sandene, 1994). Students may feel caught up in a routine if they are constantly practicing from the same method book or playing the same style of music.

Secondly, students may drop out of school music if they feel they are not succeeding at a quick enough pace. Students may experience frustration after the initial excitement of starting a new activity such as music (Sandene, 1994). Student interest may begin to wane when extra patience is required to make any sort of advancement in their musical ability. In a study of new piano students, those that had overly high expectations of how much time they would spend practicing were more likely to quit participating in music than those who had realistic expectations for practice time (McPherson & Davidson, 2002). Unrealistic expectations do not promote student success, especially in the beginning learning stages.

Another factor influencing students to drop out of school music is the lack of desire to practice. Playing a musical instrument requires regular practice in order to advance in ability. However, many students do not find practicing to be enjoyable, and therefore do not do it regularly. Many children describe practice as boring or a chore and similar to homework which gives the act of practicing a negative connotation (McPherson & Davidson, 2002). In turn, the lack of steady practice decreases the student's chances of successful progression on an instrument, which can cause a decrease in their ability to feel successful in music, and soon the student may drop from the music program.

More specific issues causing a lack of student achievement can also be attributed to a desire to quit school music programs. For example, students sometimes cannot find success with a particular instrument. In a review of literature, one study states, "69 percent of elementary school students who had dropped instrumental music indicated their instruments were difficult to play, and 34 percent said they had dropped out because of this reason" (Duerksen, 1972). Lack of achievement in music classes can be caused by a difficulty in reading music notation. Allen found, "Students reported that their problems with music reading were a critical factor in their decision to withdraw from the orchestra program" (1981). Other factors such as illness and several miscellaneous issues were found to contribute to student attrition.

The relationship between music classes and other activities was also considered an influential factor for students to drop out from music. From a summary of 800 middle school student responses collected from all over the United States, the four main reasons for dropping out of band were: "too time consuming, conflicts with participation in sports, conflicts with other school activities, and a fear of failure" (Brown, 1985).

The Proposed Study

The purpose of this study was to examine university students' reflections on their school music experiences. More specifically, this study was designed to examine the reasons of students who chose to drop out of their schools music program. The following question was examined:

What reasons do university students cite for dropping out of their school's music program?

In response to this question, this study examined the factors causing student attrition in school music programs. Also, implications for music educators were offered by comparing and contrasting the findings against previous research.


After obtaining permission from each of the three professors of the participating classes, the researcher attended each class either at the beginning or very end of the lecture. A basic outline of the research was presented to the students during the request for participation in the survey. It was made known to the students that they had the opportunity to opt out of the survey. They were told the research would analyze their reflections on their school music experiences. The research purposes were only minimally discussed in order to obtain candid answers from the students, uninfluenced by the nature of the research. Finally, the students were given a basic roadmap of the survey before the surveys were given.


The participants were 66 undergraduate students and one graduate student from North Dakota State University. More than 30 different majors were represented with only five participants listing themselves as music majors. The participants were students in three different general education classes that fulfilled the Fine Arts credits required for graduation: Music Appreciation, Fundamentals of Music, and Roots of American Popular Music. The students within these classes were, in part, chosen to participate in this study because they had a large range of previous music knowledge. Previous music experience is not a prerequisite of any of the three courses.


A survey given during each respective class was the sole instrument for collecting data. The survey was designed to elicit answers from the two groups of participants: those who had participated in school music and those who had not. School music experiences were explicitly defined by the survey as those found within the elementary, middle, or high school years, including music classes such as band, choir, orchestra, or music theory, but not including required general music classes. The survey sought to distinguish between the students who chose to participate in school music and those who had chosen not to participate at all in music outside of required general music classes.

The participants were first asked to provide two identifiers: their status in school (i.e. freshman, sophomore, etc.) and their major in order to understand the general make-up of each class. The identifiers were kept to a minimum in order to keep each student's answers anonymous. I

The researcher did not have access to any class lists; therefore, students were not able to be identified by the small amount of personal information they supplied. The participants were next directed to answer "yes" or "no" to the initial question, "Did you ever participate in music in elementary, middle, or high school (including band, choir, orchestra, music theory, but NOT INCLUDING required general music classes)?" Their response directed them to answer one set of questions continued on the first page or the other set listed on the back page. Both sets of participants, those who had participated in school music and those who had not, had access to all questions but were directed to answer only the questions which corresponded with their answer to the initial question.

The study sought to collect as much information as possible from all participants about their school music experiences. This is why students who had not participated in music were also asked to complete the survey. For the participants who indicated they had participated in school music, the open-ended questions served as prompts to direct their reflections about school music through three main ideas: (a) when and in which music classes they participated; (b) if they did not continue participating in school music through high school graduation, why they choose to quit, (c) whether they enjoyed participating in school music. The participants who had not participated in school music answered questions regarding why they choose not to participate and in what other activities they choose to participate.

Data Analysis

Each survey was initially analyzed to understand the overall make-up of the participant population. Each student's status and major was noted to better understand the diversity of the population but was not used to make any correlations with previous involvement in school music. The results of the initial "yes or no" question about school music participation were recorded to understand the amount of participants who did and did not participate in school music. The surveys were then split into three groups: those who dropped out of school music sometime before high school graduation, those who chose not to participate at all in school music, and those who participated in music throughout school.

Each group of surveys was analyzed as a collective unit. The results from each respective group were analyzed and put into generalized categories corresponding with their intent. The surveys of participants who dropped out of music were first analyzed to understand when they chose to stop participating and which music classes they were participating in before they dropped participation. The participants' answers were put into generalized categories to show any trends among the reasons cited for dropping out of school music. Participants' answers often included more than one reason for dropping out, so answers were organized into several categories. Likewise, the answers from participants who did not do school music were categorized to show any trends for reasons cited for not joining school music. Lastly, the surveys of participants who chose to do school music through graduation were analyzed and categorized to show any trends of reasons why they did or did not like participating in music. The surveys were kept for reference and clarification about student-specific school music experiences.



After totaling the number of surveyed participants from each class, it was noted that a majority of survey participants had participated in music sometime in school: 79 percent of total participants. The other 21 percent of participants had not participated in music anytime during school. The majority of each surveyed class had participated in school music—that is, one class did not contain many more music participants than another. Of the participants who had been in music sometime in school, 58 percent stated they had dropped out of music while the other 42 percent continued in school music through graduation.

Dropouts Quantitative Analysis

Participants were first asked to indicate when they stopped participating in school music. After analysis, it was found that the majority (61%) dropped out in middle school. The next highest group (35%) indicated they dropped out during high school, and just one participant noted they quit participating in elementary school.

Participants were also asked to tell which music classes were dropped when they stopped participating. Results show that 48 percent indicated they stopped participating in band. The second largest groups (19% each) included those who dropped out of choir and those who indicated they dropped out of both band and choir when they stopped participating. Three other participants stated they dropped out of orchestra (10%). Finally, just one participant dropped from an unspecified music class which was not band, choir, or orchestra.

Dropouts Qualitative Analysis

After analyzing the reasons cited by participants for dropping out of school music, a definite theme emerged: participants often cited more than one reason for quitting the music program. Reasons for dropping out of school music overlapped but were able to fit into several different categories. However, one category for dropping out of school music did reign above all: scheduling and time conflicts. The next most cited reasons included: perceived lack of musical ability, problems with the teacher, and a general loss of interest in music.

Scheduling issues or a lack of time was the most common reason given for dropping school music. These participants often said they were involved in other school activities or needed the school time to take required classes. One participant said, "When I stopped after my sophomore year in high school, it was because I got too busy to take the elective. There were other classes I needed." Several other participants cited reasons very similar to this. Another participant noted, "I was involved in other extra-curriculars and I was getting too busy." One participant even said, "I was not succeeding in classes so I dropped to get a study hall, and the result was my grades rose." However, several participants did not cite scheduling conflicts and merely said participating in music was too large of a time commitment.

A perceived lack of ability was the next common response from dropouts. One participant did not feel good enough to keep up with the rest of the ensemble: "I realized I wasn't able to play on the level I needed to keep up with the rest of the band." Another participant quit simply because they thought they weren't succeeding in music: "I wasn't the best at reading music so I usually didn't do well on the written tests." One participant who quit after two years of saxophone mentioned how his current playing influenced his decision: "Well, I didn't expect to be the next Kenny G, so I didn't see any pragmatism behind learning to play anymore."

Another frequently cited reason was dislike of the teacher. One participant who quit after just one year of playing said, "I didn't like the music teachers or the program." From a much different perspective, another participant who played in orchestra for five years, said simply, "Didn't want to do it anymore and the teacher sucked." Likewise, a participant who played in band and sang in choir for six years, and who also noted they liked participating in music for the most part, stated, "The teachers made it less fun and more of work, so I ended it."

The last most common reason cited for leaving school music was a general loss of interest in school music. Several participants listed other reasons which combined to make for a loss of interest in school music. One participant explained, "Wasn't excited about it – both my older sisters did the same and I wanted to be different." Other participants simply didn't want to participate any longer with responses such as: "I just wasn't interested in it," and "I did not want to participate anymore."

Three participants gave responses corresponding to both a perceived lack of achievement and loss of interest in school music. One participant who quit after just one year in band said, "It wasn't really my thing. I didn't practice enough, so I wasn't that good." Another participant noted, "Really just wasn't interested enough in it. My passion was in sports. Plus I wasn't very good." Lastly, an orchestra member for six years, said, "I never practiced, due to a partial loss in interest. As the music got more complex and I never progressed, I became less interested and less engaged. I hit my natural talent level."

Only a handful of participants cited other factors which influenced their decision to drop out. These factors included a dislike for practicing, a dislike for their instrument or music they were playing, the belief that music took too much effort, as well as other reasons out of the student's control.

Non-participants of music

The responses from non-participants of school music for why they chose not to participate fell into four categories listed in order of prevalence: lack of interest in school music, participation in other activities, perceived lack of talent, and lack of parental or peer guidance. There was much overlap between these categories as participants often cited more than one reason for opting out of school music.

If participants chose to give just one reason for not participating, it was that they had no interest in school music. More specifically, several participants did not enjoy the music explored in their school's music program. However, because so many participants gave responses with more than one reason, a theme showed itself: participants' involvement in other activities such as sports or other activities outside school was often coupled with a lack of interest in school music. Several participants felt too busy with other activities to pursue music in school.

Music Participants

As noted in the methods sections, participants who took part in music throughout school were asked to respond to why they enjoyed participating in school music. Responses were quite varied. Only one category of responses stood out among the rest: a general liking of the music teacher. Responses such as, "My teacher was outstanding," and "I had a great teacher" were common. Other reasons for music participation included the enjoyment of meeting new people, a perceived feeling of musical ability, and the fact that music was fun. It seemed that the participants' enjoyment of music depended very much on the individual.


This study sought to explore university students' reflections on school music and more specifically, the reasons why the students who chose to drop out of school music did so. The findings of this study will be compared to those discussed within the previous research and will seek to show music educators the current reasons students drop out from music.

Returning to the Research Question

When reflecting upon school music experiences, what reasons did university students cite for dropping out of their school's music program? The findings indicate several common factors influencing dropouts. The first and most common reason was a scheduling issue or a lack of time. Participants who cited time issues with music participation were often too busy with other activities such as sports or other school-sponsored activities. The next most common reasons included: a perceived lack of musical ability, problems with the teacher, and a general loss of interest in music.

Connections to Previous Research

With all of the varied research presented at the beginning of this article, the results of this study were found to correlate with some but not all previous research. This study's findings related most well with Brown's research who found the following reasons students dropped out of music: too time consuming, conflicts with participation in sports, conflicts with other school activities, and a fear of failure (1985).

When considering other research, Duerksen found a lack of interest in music as the main factor influencing student drop out (1972). This study found a strong relationship between a loss of interest and other factors which combined to influence participants to drop out. Only a few participants stated simply that they did not want to participate any longer. Most participants gave reasons either in combination with a loss of interest or gave other reasons which caused their loss of interest and influenced their decision to drop out from music. This finding presents some difficulties for educators as they work to keep students in their programs and will be discussed further. However, the majority of this study's participants did not cite issues with their instrument as reason for dropping out as Duerksen previously found. The few participants within this study who had issues with their instrument stated they simply didn't like playing the instrument they were given.

Another important correlation from this study and the previous research is perceived lack of achievement as an influential factor for dropping out of school music. In this study, two factors led up to a perceived lack of achievement: difficulty in reading music and a lack of desire to practice—as Allen (1981) and McPherson and Davidson (2002) found. The participants who found limited success reading music most likely became less motivated in music classes and more prone to dropping out of music. Likewise, lack of practicing most likely caused participants to fall behind their peers and believe they were not successful enough to continue participating.

One factor found in this study which did not correlate to previous research was the importance of students' feelings toward their teachers. This study found several participants who dropped out of music solely because of the teacher. The shocking finding was the participants who said they participated in music for five or six years and then suddenly dropped out of music because of an issue with their teacher.

Other Important Findings

An important finding that went unexplored until the data analysis was completed was when the dropouts stopped participating in school music. The majority of dropouts (61%) stopped participating in their school's music program in middle school after just a few years of study. In the beginning stages of instruction, students are vulnerable to frustration which can lead to dropping out of school music early in their musical lives, possibly before they even truly understand how they feel about participating in music. As stated earlier, encouragement and realistic expectations are both keys to keeping students optimistic about their ability to achieve within music.

Limitations and Ideas for Future Research

This study was limited in the number of participating university students. In future studies, the number of participants could be expanded to create a broader base of experiences from which to draw conclusions. This study was constructed in a manner to allow participants to answer very freely about their school music experiences. However, this made for a very large set of answers from which to identify trends. Future studies could make a narrower set of options for participants to draw upon so that trends could be more easily and reliably identified.

Implications for Music Educators

Because the results indicated in this study confirm findings in previous research, music educators need to be aware of the following reasons influencing students to drop out of music: scheduling or time conflicts, perceived lack of achievement, loss of interest, and issues with the teacher. Two other areas, students' difficulties with particular instruments and the early dropout rate among participants in this study are also examined. Each area is described below with implications for educators.

It is sometimes difficult for music educators to deal with time conflicts as the reason for students dropping out of music. However, educators need to realize that students today are involved more than ever in school and other activities, and each activity (including school music) requires a time commitment. It should be noted that many students who truly wish to continue in music will find a way to stay involved. When dealing with students who wish to remain in music even with a time conflict, one must follow their own philosophy when deciding how, if at all, to allow the student to continue part-time in music. Concessions can be made on the music side of the conflict as long they do not impede other students' possibilities for success. For example, students may find they can only participate in a musical ensemble every other rehearsal. Care must be taken to assure that the student does not hinder the hard work of the rest of the ensemble. Educators may choose to meet individually with students to make sure they are keeping up with the rest of the ensemble. As for students who decide to drop out of music citing only time issues as their reason, it is likely the student does not wish to participate anymore. In this case, the educator can choose to meet with the student to find any other underlying causes influencing the student's decision. Ultimately, the educator will have a difficult time changing the minds of students determined to get out of the music program, but a one-on-one conference is helpful for getting the whole story from the student.

The correlation between perceived lack of achievement and loss of interest in music should alert music educators that students who feel successful are more likely to stick with music. In order to encourage success, educators can try to get to know their students better to understand what can be done to help the student achieve success. Also, music educators can help influence motivation by encouraging students to set realistic goals for their practicing and playing. From the previously mentioned research, we understand that students can become too ambitious too early and are likely to burn themselves out (see McPherson & Davidson, 2002). Realistic expectations set by the teacher and the students can alleviate the "burnout" factor cited by McPherson and Davidson's research. Achievable goals allow students to be successful.

As noted in previous research, music educators should talk with students about issues such as a dislike or difficulty with a particular instrument. Many students who are not finding success with an instrument simply need a reevaluation as to why the student began playing that instrument in the first place. If the previous rationales no longer fit the student or allow the student success, it may be time to have the student try a different instrument. Music educators should not be afraid to allow students to experiment with different instruments if the current instrument does not make sense for students and their needs.

Lastly, music educators need to be aware of the impact they have upon their students' lives. Child psychologist Paula Bernstein noted that "musical ability is developed in a relationship, in a succession of relationships – musical self in relation to musical selves. The parents and the teachers who made a difference in the lives of both professionals and nonprofessionals were caring adults who nurtured the musical behaviors all along the age spectrum of development" (1990). Music educators have a great opportunity to be a positive influence, both personally and musically, to each student. Sandene reinforced this idea with a strong statement about how to keep students in music. He said, "The most important factor in reducing student attrition is building healthy relationships with students" (1994). This small bit of advice is the perfect starting point to help music educators keep students in their programs.


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