Music and the Habits of the Mind

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Teacher.

Three students found me one morning tea and asked if they could use the classroom to practise their clarinets. These were not advanced clarinettists in the senior school, but students in the last year of primary school, near the end of two-year program of class instrumental instruction and after end-of-term class assessment had taken place.

I was pleased with their enthusiasm, and asked them what motivated them still to want to practise. ‘We’ve come this far,’ said one. ‘Not to continue is like running half a race and then stopping.’

As a teacher, I’ve always been curious about the development of attitudes for learning that many successful music students demonstrate. Were they born with perseverance, flexible thinking and a desire for accuracy? Were they successful only because they had natural talent? Was there a correlation between mastery in a musical field and mastery in the academic domain, and if so, why?

I knew that many of our students who began instruments in the classroom program were motivated to persist through the co-curricular band and string ensembles. What could I learn, I wondered, from the co-curricular music program that I could use in the regular classroom?

Music, cognitive development and brain plasticity

Understandings of cognitive development and brain plasticity, as Olive Emil-Wetter, Fritz Koerner and Adrian Schwaninger note in ‘Does musical training improve school performance?’ reveal that students who learn a musical instrument and have a continuous and active participation with music often demonstrate enhanced academic outcomes. Research by Glenn Schellenberg shows that learning a musical instrument helps develop skills like concentration, memorisation and abstract reasoning, while research by Gottfried Schlaug and colleagues suggests that actively practising a musical instrument even increases the ‘grey matter’ in the brain.

While much research has been done on the impact that musical learning has on fine motor and melodic distinction skills, the evidence from the research of Schlaug and colleagues and of Marie Forgeard and colleagues demonstrates that musical training may also lead to possible transfer effects in other areas like spatial awareness, mathematical skills and phonemic awareness.

Habits of Mind

In addition to the positive neurological effects, I was curious about the impact that a consistent involvement in music might have on developing Habits of Mind attitudes. ‘Habits of Mind,’ in the words of Art Costa, ‘are dispositions that are skilfully and mindfully employed by characteristically intelligent, successful people when they are confronted with problems, the solutions to which are not immediately apparent.’

As Costa and Bena Kallick explain, these include persisting, thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, managing impulsivity, gathering data through all senses, listening with understanding and empathy, creating, imagining and innovating, thinking flexibly, responding with wonderment and awe, thinking about thinking, taking responsible risks, striving for accuracy, finding humour, questioning and posing problems, thinking interdependently, applying past knowledge to new situations and remaining open to continuous learning.

The value in fostering the learning and practising of habits like persistence, striving for accuracy and being open to continuous learning is not new to educators. Teachers routinely encourage students to keep trying, approach tasks with flexibility and manage their impulsivity in the classroom. Developing the pro-active attitudes that allow students to solve problems and become aware of their own thinking is essential to the education of today’s students.

Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind are universally applicable to all learning situations. Once developed and internalised they can be applied across all disciplines. As educators, what could we learn about the internalisation of the Habits of Mind from these three young clarinettists and the co-curricular ensembles that helped foster their motivation to persist?

The study of a musical instrument or voice and the demands of performing either as an individual or in an ensemble routinely depend on many of the Habits of Mind that Costa and Kallick describe. Many of us who have attempted to begin the journey of learning to play an instrument are quickly confronted with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of making a reasonable sound, finding the correct pitch and reading the new language of musical notation.

How do many children persist through this difficult time and reach a level of mastery and satisfaction with the beauty of the sound they produce? While some innate talent is helpful, I believe it’s the development of Habits of Mind of the kind Costa and Kallick describe that allow students to demonstrate and extend their musical understanding. These habits are the same ones that help students achieve in the classroom.

Practise, practise, practise

The life skills of persistence, striving for accuracy, applying past knowledge to new situations, thinking about your own thinking and remaining open to continuous learning are aptly called ‘habits’ because they only become effective in one’s life if they are practised repeatedly over a long period of time and internalised. Developing the motivation in students to practise and stay actively involved in music over a period of years can be a struggle for teachers, parents and the students themselves.

Research shows that mastery of a skill is only achieved with repetition: it takes time and lots of practising – according to research by Anders Ericsson, about 10,000 hours in deliberate practising.

Kathleen Cushman describes the complexities of motivation and persistence in ‘The strive of it,’ which looks at her research for the Practice Project. Cushman explored the conditions that inspire perseverance towards mastery, interviewing 160 teenagers from diverse backgrounds around the United States. These students came to develop their mastery not necessarily because they had ‘natural talent’ but because they learned the skills of persevering, facing frustration and being open to strategies that helped them engage not just in practising but in the deliberate practising that Ericsson emphasises.

Deliberate practising involves being able to think about your thinking and often verbalising the actions and understandings required to successfully achieve precision. Fundamental to this is a sustained relationship with a mentor. Cushman’s findings show that while kids are motivated to begin an activity because it looks like fun, ‘When they hit discouraging points, most students said they only continued if they had a strong relationship with someone who supported them through the rough spots.’


Establishing the dialogue required to mentor students towards mastery is often evident in the individual attention paid to students in music lessons and instrumental programs. Individual music lessons and ensemble work allow teachers and students the chance to engage in detailed metacognitive and reflective talk: ‘What strategies did you use to work out the rhythm in this section?’ ‘How are we going to listen to each other in this difficult passage?’ ‘You need to look more closely at the pitches in this passage to make sure you’re performing them accurately.’

Of course all good teachers ask probing and reflective questions, but the individual and consistent interaction that occurs in the music lesson or weekly band rehearsal is one of the best examples of the way positive learning dispositions can be ingrained in students.

The young age that many children begin their involvement with music may contribute to the development of life skills like perseverance and striving for accuracy, especially when these skills are reinforced, expected and mentored on an ongoing basis. When children begin music instruction with teachers who use specific strategies to help them improve, the tangible evidence of their effort leads them to see their intelligence as changeable, not fixed. They become incremental thinkers who, as Costa and Kallick put it in Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, are ‘more likely to apply self-regulatory, metacognitive skills when they encounter task difficulties.’

Crucial to the continuation of this development are the opportunities co-curricular ensembles provide for an authentic and enjoyable expression of developed skills and understandings. The shared understanding and enjoyment they feel, along with the friendships across grade levels found in co-curricular music groups, is very inspiring for many students.

Linked with this is a respect for the efforts and skills of the other students in the group and the demonstrated skill of the teacher. Music teachers are often active performers. Their ability to demonstrate skills and relate authentic examples of intelligent behaviours, and lessons from failure and successes in their own lives help students see the rewards of sticking with it.

As Costa and Kallick explain in Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, ‘Because most dispositional learnings are “caught, not taught,” teachers must “walk the talk.”’ The relationships that are fostered in co-curricular music programs, often over a period of years, play a large part in developing a sense of commitment to the process and self-efficacy in students.

Developing the Habits of Mind required to strive for mastery of a musical instrument may help students apply these same habits in the classroom. Additionally, examining the attributes that make up successful music instruction could lend more support to the importance of authentic problem-solving, mentoring, individual attention and consistent expectations in all areas of schooling.

Remember those three young clarinettists that were motivated to practise even past the assessment date? They’re now in secondary school. They attend concert band each week, two of them have private lessons and they still come up to the music department on a regular basis to practise.

And where’s the finish line of their race? They will decide. They are reinforcing the Habits of Mind that are so crucial to lifelong learning and the realisation of potential.


Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (ACARA)., Retrieved September 26, 2010.

Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (2009). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. Victoria Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education

Cushman, K. (2010). The Strive of It. Educational Leadership, February, 50– 55

Emil Wetter O., Koerner F., Schwaninger A. (2009). Does musical training improve school performance? Instr Sci 37: 365–374

Eriksson, K. A. (Ed.) (1990). The Road to expert performance: Empirical evidence from the arts and sciences, sports, and games. Mahwah, NJ; Erlbaum.

Forgeard M, Winner E, Norton A, Schlaug G. (2008). Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. PLoS ONE 3:e3566. Retrieved from [PDF 223kB]

Schellenberg E G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science 15(8) 511-514.

Schlaug G, Norton A, Overy K. & Winner E. (2005). Effects of music training on the child’s brain and cognitive development. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1060: 219-230.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Teacher.