A guide for parents featuring 5 tips on how to motivate your child to practice music at home so they can learn to play an instrument. You might also enjoy this list of fun ways to learn music at home.
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How to get your child excited to play music: a guide for parents trying to motivate children to practice
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“I don’t really like practicing, because I have to do it while my brother and sister get to watch TV.”
This is what a nine-year old student told me when I was subbing at a music school recently. You probably don’t have to be a psychologist to figure out that this is not the best way to get your child excited to practice.
But of course, it isn’t simple to motivate children to play an instrument. So in this article, we’ll take a brief look at the science of motivation and then discuss five tips to help foster and grow your child’s natural enthusiasm for music.
What the science of motivation tells us
There are two main types of motivation. First there’s intrinsic motivation, where we do things for no other reason than that we find them interesting and enjoyable. Then there’s extrinsic motivation. When we’re extrinsically motivated, we want to do something because it will lead to a certain outcome. For example, your child might read up on the ins and outs of the moon landing just for fun (intrinsic), or to get a good grade on a history exam (extrinsic).
It’s important to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. We all know it’s more enjoyable to do things that we’re intrinsically motivated to do. But intrinsic motivation also leads to higher quality learning. It’s easier to remember the details of your favorite hobby than, say, the intricacies of German tax law.
What does the science of motivation mean for playing music?
We know intrinsic motivation is preferable because it’s more fun and leads to better learning. But here is the catch: we can only be intrinsically motivated to do anything if we find it interesting to begin with. This means that some kids will not have an intrinsic motivation to play music, simply because it’s not aligned with their interests. If so, that’s okay! Our goal should, I believe, not be to motivate kids to play music at all costs, but to find out if they have an interest in music in the first place. Then, if they do, we can work to enhance their motivation.
How do we increase motivation?
Tip #1: Carrots and sticks will eventually backfire
Once we get rewarded for an activity, doing it without any form of compensation loses its appeal. This effect has been confirmed in various experiments. In one study at a nursery school, children who were very interested in drawing were divided into three groups. The first group agreed to make a drawing in exchange for a certificate and a star. The second group completed a drawing and got a surprise reward, while the third group got nothing. Next, the researchers kept track of how much time the kids spent drawing during free choice time.
The result? The children who agreed to draw in exchange for a reward spent significantly less time drawing than those who received either no reward or an unexpected one. This suggests that ‘bribing’ kids to do something undermines their interest in that activity. Science indicates that the same is true for threats, deadlines and directives. Anything that we experience as a controller of our behavior diminishes our intrinsic motivation.
Tip #2: Praise effort
According to the research, a sense of competency is important for our intrinsic motivation. When we feel we’re kind of good at something, it’s more fun to do.
Interestingly, competency is largely subjective. There are great musicians who feel like they’re horrible players, and there are beginner guitar players who are proud and satisfied with their progress. This is why praise can be an effective way to enhance intrinsic motivation: when we’re praised, it enhances our feeling of competence.
Praising effort vs. talent
However, the way we give praise matters. We should try to praise effort, instead of natural ability. So instead of saying “That sounds great, you’re so talented!’, our message should be closer to “That sounds great, you’ve done an amazing job practicing!”
In a range of studies, children who were complimented on their talent were compared to children whose efforts were praised. The “you’re so smart and talented” group was less persistent with tasks, enjoyed tasks less and performed worse than the “you’ve worked very hard” group.
The gift of a growth mindset
Why does the way we praise matter? Praising talent helps ingrain a so-called ‘fixed mindset’, where we assume that whenever we achieve success, it’s because we have an innate talent for it, and not because we practiced. Having a fixed mindset is detrimental for pretty much every part of our lives. Why? A fixed mindset leads us to believe that we fail not because our efforts fell short, but that we ourselves fell short. By praising effort, we instill a ‘growth mindset’, where we believe that performance is the result of practice. People with a growth mindset believe that talent can be developed through effort and practice. This makes them more likely to work for it and less afraid of taking on challenging tasks.
Tip #3: Push only gently
So, when we’re good at something, it’s more fun. Of course, if competency were the only thing necessary for motivation, kids could just be coerced or bribed to practice until they developed that sense of competency.
But there’s a second ingredient we need for intrinsic motivation: a sense of autonomy. We need to have the feeling that we’re doing something out of our own free will and not because some outside force is pushing us. So, how does this apply to learning music?
Deciding to take lessons
It starts with the decision to play music and take lessons. Generally, I’d advise against having kids take music lessons if they don’t want to, though this is a delicate balance. Sometimes, kids need to be given a little push to try something new. And you also want to teach your child the value of being persistent.
There are ways to still provide some sense of autonomy though. For example, you can say: “Try it for ten lessons and then decide if you want to continue.” Academic Angela Duckworth, writer of the book Grit, has a rule that her children have to do “one hard thing” that requires persistence, whether that’s learning an instrument, joining a baseball team or something else.
Tip #4: Find a music teacher who can tap into your child’s enthusiasm
Of course, the music lessons themselves matter a lot. Now, this is more my concern as a music teacher than yours as a parent, but perhaps my thoughts will help you find the right teacher.
As a teacher, I always try to let my students play music they like. Music they already know. This can be children’s songs, but I find that kids are often much more excited to play the songs they listen to. So that could be anything from Ed Sheeran and Avicii to Arianna Grande and Katy Perry.
Often, kids have no idea that they can play their favorite songs on their instrument: “What? I can play what Arianna Grande is singing on guitar?!” This lets a teacher tap into the enthusiasm for music kids already have.
I also help my students figure out how to play songs by ear. This gives them a greater sense of competency. As students train their ears, their sense of autonomy also increases. They can now play any song they want without relying on sheet music or a teacher.
Tip #5: Avoid framing music as homework
Avoid telling kids they ‘have to practice’. It can be a fun shared activity instead of ‘extra homework’. For example, having kids explain what they’ve learned is a great way to study that doesn’t feel like hard practice. You could ask: “Hey, could you tell me how to play that song you learned in class yesterday?” This frames it not as ‘reviewing homework’, but more like ‘sharing a cool thing you’re learning’.
I hope this article has given you some insight into how you can help your child become excited to play music. In short: I believe we should never force it upon them, but offer music as one possible avenue to explore. If the interest isn’t there, that’s okay. But if a child is interested, we’ll be setting them on a path to one of the most rewarding experiences in their lives.
Just Rijna is a guitarist and educator based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is the founder of StringKick, a site dedicated to helping guitar players develop their musicality to become the musician they want to be.