Non-Music Major Participation in College and University Ensembles
Published online: 1 May 2021
- Issue: Volume 61, No. 1
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2020.61.1.sr.11520
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27041501
What would it take for you to participate? is a central question with which colleges and universities that offer programs in music must engage. Music teaching and learning research largely focuses on K-12 students and on individuals who intend to become career musicians. But another important community to understand more fully consists of college students who engage in campus ensembles, but who are not majoring in music. As soon-to-be professionals in fields outside of music, their personal histories associated with music-making are important to understand because their personal values concerning music will affect their sense of its greater value to society, and are a basis for actions they take or do not take toward supporting music education for others in their families, communities, and institutions of learning. In this way, these students offer insights important for universities and colleges who are invested in creating a healthy, widely valued, and self-sustaining culture of music teaching and learning. This literature review examines the reasons for music ensemble participation by college non-music majors as well as factors that inhibit their participation. Findings show that love/enjoyment of music is the primary motivation for participation. Other factors promoting participation also include social aspects and musical background. Factors inhibiting music participation are primarily student perceptions of time commitments and conflicts, followed by perceived musical ability, declining interest, and availability of opportunity. Implications for colleges, universities, and career musicians are discussed.
Research focusing on the teaching and learning of music at the college and university level naturally centers on students who are majoring in music. Yet, understanding why non-music majors participate in music studies is also important because of its relevance to higher-education institutions that strive to meet the needs of all students interested in music. Most assuredly, such institutions must assist both those who choose music as a career and those who do not. But comprehending the motivations of non-music majors taking up the study of music may help researchers to understand the role of music in the lives of the citizenry. Music teaching and learning at the college and university level could benefit, in the final analysis, from such broader concerns.
Generally speaking, the culture of music learning in American education from K-12 through colleges and universities that largely encompasses band, orchestra, and choir (BOC) does not address the lifelong musical needs of students (Adams, 2016). And within this frame of reference, it does not sufficiently sustain itself (Cutietta, 2012; Reimer, 1997). This may be due in part to administrators who rely on their personal value of music as they make potentially detrimental decisions in relation to the existence, quality, and funding of music programs (Fields, 1982; Major, 2013). One way to circumvent such issues is to explore how non-music majors value music participation, since meeting their needs could heighten their sense of music’s value to society, along with their desire to support music education, including through policy making and advocating for it in their communities and educational institutions. The purpose of this article, then, is to examine the literature in order to more fully understand the factors underlying non-music major participation in college and university ensembles. Equipped with this information, we can then begin to understand and formulate reasons as to why non-music majors may value music, and how that attachment continues throughout their lives.
Factors of Participation
Love and Enjoyment
While multiple factors may work in combination to influence the decisions of non-music majors to participate in musical activities (Mantie & Dorfman, 2014; Moder, 2013), these students consistently report that they do so because they enjoy making music (Buchanan, 1998; Isbell & Stanley, 2011; Mantie & Dorfman, 2014; Moder, 2013; Tedford, 2014). In a sample of 2,933 non-music majors enrolled in band ensembles in American universities and colleges across 37 states, students indicated that their love for and enjoyment of music was the main reason why they continued to participate from high school into college (Moder, 2013). Likewise, “Love/Enjoyment of Music/Singing” was the most frequently cited reason for such participation (N=964) in choral ensembles in small, medium, and large colleges and universities across the United States (Buchanan,1998). Seventy-three percent of first-year non-music majors in smaller populations (N=70) linked with a private Christian liberal-arts college stated the same thing (Tedford, 2014). This concurs with results from another study of a small liberal-arts college campus band, where among 100 participants, “Love to Play” was the most frequently appearing coded reason for participation (Isbell & Stanley, 2011). Significantly, in a study of 781 non-music majors at 30 campuses across the United States, students’ highest-rated reason for participation was “I love my instrument and/or love singing,” while the third lowest-rated item was “I love the music we play/sing,” indicating that the playing/singing itself, even more than what is played/sung, is the important part of student musical engagement (Mantie & Dorfman, 2014). Thus, across multiple studies carried out in small, medium, large, private, and public colleges and universities, non-music majors overwhelmingly report that their reason for music participation is love and enjoyment.
Students report that they not only enjoy music but also regard it as important in their lives. In a survey of 467 non-music majors at a large public university, 82% of all respondents concurred with this statement: “I thought it was important and wanted to do it for myself” (Bowles et al., 2014, p. 15). Similarly, over 92% of students who played in ensembles at a private liberal-arts college likewise agreed that music was an important facet of their lives (Tedford, 2014). Studying levels of participation continuing from high school to various colleges and universities throughout the United States, Amundson (2012) found that participants in choirs (N=369) expressed a significantly higher level of personal value associated with music than nonparticipants (n=101). Indeed, such personal value was a strong predictor of intent to participate in music in the future for 130 non-major choral students at a large public university (Sichivitsa, 2007).
Students consider the emotional benefits from being involved in music and maintaining or improving their skills to be personally important (Moder, 2013). Ten percent of non-major choral participants indicated they take part in choir because it relieves stress, and an additional 18% cited other reasons, including that choir was a “refreshing, emotional outlet” (Buchanan, 1998). Looking back at their college experiences 20 years after graduation, the alumni (n=344) of a small liberal-arts college reported valuing the emotional benefits of their ensemble participation (Lapp, 2012).
Developing musical skills is a goal that both music majors and non-music majors share. Phrases like “to improve my voice and to have fun singing harmony” (Nichols, 2014, p. 138) and to “continue to grow as a musician” (Isbell & Stanley, 2011, p. 25) reveal how non-majors value opportunities to improve. Bowles et al. (2014) show that the challenge to improve or maintain one’s skills was important to 66% of students initially enrolling in college music ensembles and for 45% of students continuing their participation in ensembles. Indeed, the majority of studies show that the desire for skill maintenance or improvement is an integral part of the decision to participate (Bowles et al., 2014; Isbell & Stanley, 2011; Nichols, 2014; Tedford, 2014).
Enjoying and valuing music are related to the idea of a student’s musical self-concept, which is regarded as a person’s self-perception of their musical competence, stemming from their experiences and subsequent interpretations of them (Sanders, 2000; Sanders & Browne, 1998; Sichivitsa, 2007). Sichivitsa (2007) found that for choir participants, the relationship between musical self-concept and the personal value of music was causal and indirect, and was mediated by social and academic integration. Sanders (2000) found that musical self-concept was significantly predicted by the enjoyment of music, musical experience, and the value of music on the part of 80 non-music majors.
The relationship between musical self-concept and participation encompasses not only one’s sense of self-competence but also how this perceived competence may fit into one’s intended music ensemble. Some non-major participants report feeling “needed” (Royse, 1989), or that they would be an asset (Tedford, 2014), or that they were “well-matched” (Faber, 2010) to their ensembles. The feeling of being a good fit for an ensemble is important to music and non-music majors alike. For 162 first-year non-music majors at small liberal-arts colleges in Indiana, “perception of musical proficiency” was ranked fifth out of twenty-five reasons for non-participation by non-music majors (Faber, 2010).
In addition to the enjoyment and love of music, social aspects rate strongly among the reasons as to why non-music majors value musical participation at a college or university, with issues of ensemble reputation and pride in membership important to some (Buchanan, 1998; Faber, 2010; Moder, 2013). Students appreciate the “element of community” and “feeling the family atmosphere” (Isbell & Stanley, 2011, p. 27). Although most of the scholarly literature shows that social aspects are important reasons for participation, Moder (2013) discovered that social aspects were more pertinent to members of athletic bands (i.e., marching and pep bands) than to members of concert and jazz bands. For some, the social aspect is just as important as the musical aspect (Royse, 1989), influencing a student’s initial decision to participate after high school, and also their decision to continue enrollment throughout their collegiate years (Bowles et al., 2014).
Along with enjoying the general social atmosphere of music ensembles, participants want to develop relationships with their peers (Tedford, 2014). Data from a survey of students who withdrew from concert band (N=103) showed that the more students get along with their band peers, the more likely they are to continue (Royse, 1989). Results from Amundson (2012) also indicated that peers are important to student decisions to continue in choral groups.
Although peer influence is important to the participants of music ensembles, reports of its extent are varied. Royse (1989) found that 8% of students who withdrew from concert band indicated they did not get along well with their peers, which was noted to be a high percentage, given how little time during rehearsals was available for social interaction. In choral groups, Amundson (2012) found peer influence on non-participants to be stronger than that on ensemble participants. Conversely, Faber (2010) discovered the opposite in a group of choral and instrumental non-majors.
Extending beyond the choice to participate, social influences do relate to student perceptions of the value of music, musical self-concept, and musical self-esteem. Sichivitsa (2007) found that social experiences in choir mediated the relationship between musical self-concept and the value of music. Draves (2008) found that peers were important for bolstering musical self-esteem for non-majors enrolled in a song-writing class. Students related: “Everyone makes me feel so good about my songs and my lyrics,” and “The song was well-received by everyone in the class . . . so, I walked out of class feeling very good about myself and my songwriting” (Draves, 2008, pp. 42–43).
The Influence of Parents and High-School Directors
In assessing which factors may influence a non-music major to participate in a college ensemble, we must consider the roles of their parents, who shape and encourage a student’s initial engagement with the music that occurs in high school. However, this influence seems to diminish once college begins (Bowles et al., 2014), which may help explain why reports of parental influence vary.
Ensemble members at a private Christian liberal-arts college indicated that parental advice was the most significant factor affecting their participation—more so than the advice of friends and high-school directors (Tedford, 2014). Conversely, in a large population of non-music majors enrolled in band, Moder (2013) found that parental influence was low—lower than that of their friends and high-school directors. For some students discontinuing their participation from high school into college, parental advice was not a factor (Amundson, 2012; Stewart, 2007). Lastly, for some students, parental influence in either direction was disregarded. Indeed, if parents did not encourage participation, students participated in ensembles, nonetheless. Likewise, 73% of students who withdrew from college concert band reported that although their parents felt it was a worthwhile activity, they were firm in their decision to withdraw (Royse, 1989).
Describing a highly influential high-school director, one student recalled an important moment as the decision to continue musical participation in college approached:
He had his Alma Mater’s concert band come play for us. I remember that they were really good, and we all loved listening to them play. At the end he said to them, “Raise your hand if you’re a non-music major” and almost everyone did. At that moment, I saw my music path extended for another four years. From then on, a concert band full of non-music majors was the primary thing I searched for while I was looking for a college. (Bowles et al., 2014, p. 17)
Nevertheless, as with parental influence, documentation on the influence of high-school music directors on college participation varies. Although non-music majors in choral ensembles evaluated their high-school directors in a positive light, they never mentioned them in their open-ended responses to questions dealing with their reasons for participating in the group (Buchanan, 1998). Stewart (2007) showed that high-school band directors had no sway on student decisions to not take part in college band as first-year students. Yet, a survey of 470 students showed that a “high school teacher’s advice” was a statistically significant influence on choral participants, with such students rating this as more influential than non-participants (Amundson, 2012). These findings agree with those of Faber (2010) in that high-school directors were more influential for those who continue in an ensemble than for those who do not.
Participation in musical ensembles as students matriculate into college can be a natural outgrowth of the momentum of their previous musical activities (Faber, 2010; Isbell & Stanley, 2011; Lapp, 2012; Moder, 2013; Tedford, 2014). Key words such as “continue,” “keep,” and “stay involved” show the desire of participants to extend musical activity already begun (Isbell & Stanley, 2011; Moder, 2013).
When Lapp (2012, p. 94) asked alumni about their reasons for participation in college, the statement “Because I took lessons (or was in a similar ensemble) through high school and wanted to continue the experience” was ranked as the strongest factor driving participation. For other scholars (Faber, 2010; Isbell & Stanley, 2011; Moder, 2013), students currently enrolled also stated that continuing their high-school experience was one of the top two reasons for their participation. Because its broadness encompasses many dimensions of participation, Faber (2010) concluded that the high-school experience may be a comprehensive factor influencing participation beyond high school.
The momentum of previous high-school experiences may also affect non-participants. McDavid (2006) and Stewart (2007) found that negative high-school experiences are linked to future non-participation. Similarly, high-school experience ranked highly in a list of reasons non-participants provided for their non-participation (Faber, 2010). For some students, an overabundance of musical activity in high school led to a negative overall experience that inhibited future participation. Seventeen percent of respondents at a small college agreed with the statement, “I am burned out from musical involvement in high school,” and nearly 7% gave it as their primary reason for discontinuing participation (Tedford, 2014).
Involvement with high-school music is not the only aspect of musical background affecting future participation. Ten percent of respondents who were asked why they chose to participate in collegiate choral ensembles cited “the need to stay involved in music.” Yet only one percent agreed that “great high-school experiences” influenced their participation (Buchanan, 1998). A qualitative study of two glee club members by Nichols (2014) showed that each had a well-developed history of musical experience in and out of high school that played an important role in their desires to continue in music. Faber (2010) and Bowles et al. (2014) reported that a majority of ensemble participants in their respective studies had been frequently involved in musical activities outside of high school. Faber (2010) further reported that 87% of college non-participants had seldom been involved in musical activities outside of high school.
Cogdill (2013) and Sichivitsa (2007) explore how the momentum of previous musical experiences might shape student involvement in collegiate performing ensembles. Surveying 426 college students at a large university about their singing self-concept, Cogdill (2013) found a significant relationship between students with musical experiences (both in and out of high school), musical self-concept, and an inclination toward growth-mindset orientation, which influenced students’ intention to participate. Sichivitsa (2007) traced the development of student inclinations toward future participation in collegiate choral ensembles:
First, the mutually reinforcing factors of previous musical experience and parental support of music positively influenced students’ self-concepts in music. Next, students with better self-concepts in music reported better academic and social integration in choir, both of which directly and positively affected the value students placed on music....Finally, students who placed greater value on music were more motivated to participate in music in the future. (p. 62)
In addition to emphasizing the reasons as to why students participate in music as non-music majors, it is now germane to address the detailed reasons regarding those students who do not participate. Across multiple studies, the prevailing theme of non-participation is time, with students consistently reporting that time commitments and conflicts strongly influence non-participation decisions (Amundson, 2012; Faber, 2010; Isbell & Stanley, 2011; McDavid, 2006; Stewart, 2007; Tedford, 2014). Other considerations are perception of musical ability, declining interest, and opportunity.
Phrases like, “Campus Band fits in my schedule this year,” and “I don’t have time to devote to any of the higher music ensembles,” show how students think about time conflicts and commitments (Isbell & Stanley, 2011, p. 26). College course loads and work commitments mattered significantly for students who declined participation coming into college (Amundson, 2012; McDavid, 2006; Stewart, 2007) and for those who discontinued participation during their college years (Tedford, 2014). While non-participants may feel the impact of time conflicts more strongly than participants (Faber, 2010; Tedford, 2014), Faber (2010) noted that since participants and non-participants alike ranked time considerations in their top three reasons for participation or non-participation, “It might be concluded that if students want to participate, they will do what it takes to do so” (p. 140). The overall value placed on music participation may be related not solely to perceived benefits but to costs as well, and for many students, the cost in time outweighs the benefits (Amundson, 2012).
Ability, Interest, Opportunity
Though time is an important consideration, many students report feeling that they would not be able to play well enough for the ensembles at their college or university (Amundson, 2012; Faber, 2010; McDavid, 2006; Stewart, 2007; Tedford, 2014), that they are no longer interested in musical participation (Amundson, 2012; Tedford, 2014), or that they lack opportunities to play (Isbell & Stanley, 2011). The following sentiment is representative of those pondering musical involvement after college: “It saddens me to know that after college I will most likely not be able to play music because I am not at a professional level of playing” (Bowles et al., 2014, p. 16). This feeling is shared by high-school musicians considering their college participation. Eleven percent of choral non-participants said that feeling insecure about their singing ability was the reason why they chose not to participate (Amundson, 2012). Broadly speaking, participants in ensembles generally reported high levels of confidence in their abilities (Faber, 2010; Tedford, 2014), while non-participants believed that they would not be an asset to their college ensembles (Tedford, 2014).
For some students, declining interest outweighs perceptions of ability. McDavid (2006) found that the second highest reason for student non-continuation from high school to college was declining interest, while perception of musical ability was ranked sixth. Significantly, some students ranked declining interest just lower than perceived ability and time considerations, perhaps indicating that they would not want to participate even if they knew they could in terms of time and ability (Faber, 2010). These findings are understandable in relation to data in the same study which showed that nearly 80% of non-participants never had the intention to participate (Faber, 2010).
Even when interest, perceived ability, and time are present, opportunity may not be, especially at universities and colleges that do not offer a student’s preferred ensemble. Some students feel that ensembles at their college or university are their only opportunity to play or sing, and that not joining equates to ending their participation in music altogether (Isbell & Stanley, 2011). The motivation to participate can thus be colored by an awareness that ensemble participation depends partly on chance; as one student relates: “I will find a way to keep playing/singing the rest of my life, but playing in an ensemble will multiply my actual playing experiences, if I am lucky to find such an opportunity” (Bowles et al., 2014, p. 16).
Conclusion: Implications and Future Research
The enjoyment of music, social aspects of ensembles, and musical backgrounds combined with the costs of participation, especially in time, and other inhibitors like perceived ability, declining interest, and opportunity are particularly important to students when considering participation in college or university music ensembles. Students overwhelmingly indicate that their enjoyment and personal value of music are important, especially in terms of desired skill development or emotional benefit, and are the primary reasons for non-music major participation in ensembles.
The social aspects of participation, including contact with peers and peer influence on musical self-concept, are also consequential factors with respect to the participation of non-music majors. And we should also add to this list student musical backgrounds, shaped by parents and high-school directors, and the momentum arising from experiences in and out of high school. On the other hand, student decisions not to participate are driven by a self-assessment of their musical ability, interest level, and opportunities for ensemble participation. But above all, non-participation decisions are mostly determined not only by student perceptions of the time commitment involved with an ensemble but also time conflicts that arise with other valued activities.
Since student decisions to participate in college and university music ensembles are made during high school (Bowles et al., 2014), parents, high-school directors, and other career musicians can foster a positive sense of momentum in students to continue their engagement with music. Included in this momentum is the enjoyment of music, which drives a student’s willingness to participate and is counterbalanced by the many worthwhile activities that compete for a high-schooler’s time (Faber, 2010). High-school directors can help students develop a positive musical self-concept with appropriate literature, and can respond sensitively to signs that students are experiencing burnout (Moder, 2013). High-school music directors, as well as college and university instructors, can work together to encourage high-schoolers to participate in musical activities during their college years by joining forces to talk directly to students, to arrange co-performances, and by distributing information about options for future participation (Bowles et al., 2014; Faber, 2010).
A central question for college and university instructors working with non-career musicians may be this: Am I facilitating musical experiences that non-career musicians value? Career musicians can encourage student participation in music regardless of their ability or stage in life (Moder, 2013), knowing that “what it takes” is not talent but an enjoyment of music and opportunity to grow musically (Cogdill, 2013). Structuring ensembles to provide students with ample social-musical opportunities, ameliorating their perceived time costs of participation, and shifting ensemble goals toward helping students develop a strong musical self-concept through appropriate, relevant literature and access to knowledgeable others are ways that college and university instructors can positively influence the musical lives and participation of non-career musicians. Finally, the indication that the literature selected for college ensembles is not a driving force for student participation (Mantie & Dorfman, 2014) calls for college and university music directors to consider that the music associated with the traditional BOC model may be augmented by other materials that exhibit more relevance to the communities and cultures of students in those ensembles.
College and university policy makers can focus on increasing campus-wide student involvement in music by offering a wide variety of music-making opportunities, from BOC ensembles to chamber and popular music ensembles, to ensembles that reflect the communities an institution serves—a Mariachi ensemble for example. In so doing, colleges and universities can establish deeper community and cultural relevance. By discovering what kinds of ensembles are of interest to students and by offering non-audition ensembles that are open to all majors, colleges and universities can make a clear statement that student musical engagement is more important than ability level (Amundson, 2012; Lapp, 2012). Ensembles open to students from all majors and musical abilities, including beginners, can entice students with little or no musical momentum from previous experiences, increase the scope and richness of social interactions that participants value, and positively shape campus communities (Lapp, 2012). Finally, welcoming, encouraging, and supporting the enjoyment of musical engagement and growth for as many non-music majors in college and university music programs as possible builds a music-affirming base of future professionals who can go on to share their value of music within their own communities, families, and institutions long after graduation.
The literature reviewed in this article demonstrates that the primary reason non-music majors participate in college and university ensembles is for enjoyment. But understanding what is enjoyable about this activity would require a deeper evaluation of motivations and perceived benefits. Future scholarship could continue to enable a richer understanding of what exactly is so enjoyable about music for participants. Avenues of inquiry about enjoyment could include understanding the confluence of enjoyment with musical excellence, and of enjoyment with musical self-concept, especially with relation to declining interest. Since respondents reported that social aspects of ensemble participation were important, it would be useful to explore in more detail the value of these social aspects. More can be learned from participants if they are asked to elaborate and express in specific terms what is socially valuable to them. Lastly, building on a broader theme underlying this literature review, which is to understand the musical lives of those who do not choose music for a career, researchers may be interested in learning more from college alumni about their student music participation, their rates of and reasons for any current music participation, what types of previous experiences provided them the greatest momentum, and how reasons for participation may change over a lifespan.
What would it take for you to participate? This question is perhaps one that as music educators, philosophers, and advocates, we strive most to answer. Guided by this inquiry, researchers may learn rich, surprising, and valuable perspectives from individuals of any age who opt out of musical experiences in institutions. Along with learning from those who participate, but do not choose music for a career, researching these perspectives can help catalyze fresh ideas for greater inclusion in the field of music teaching and increase the relevance of musical participation, especially for future policy makers whose decisions will influence music access in institutions for others.
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Last modified on Monday, 24/01/2022
Lynne M. Snyder
Lynne Snyder is the Clarinet Choir Director and Woodwinds Coach at the California Institute of Technology and is an active performer and educator throughout Southern California. She is pursuing a DMA degree at the University of Southern California where her research focuses on creativity and non-career musicians.