Gender Associations and Musical Instruments
Connecting Literature to Practice
“This is the first time, in all my years of teaching music here, that I’ve been able to put together an all-female group for this course,” our professor told us very seriously, midway through my Popular Music Studies course at my study abroad site in London, England. Our instrumentation was mostly typical for rock — vocalist, two bassists, a guitarist, and a drummer — but what we were beginning to realize as we looked across the room at each other was that we really were composed of all women. It was a first for me, too: I had never played with all women, nor had I ever stopped to think about why that was the case.
Upon returning home from study abroad, I began to think about why there were only a handful of women in my college jazz band. This had been the case in my middle and high school jazz bands as well. I began to see patterns in instrumentation, too, grouped by family: the brass instruments were dominated by men while the high woodwinds featured women. Wanting to know more about these tendencies, I began to look into gender associations during my junior year of college and found data that confirmed my suspicions: certain instruments are often thought of as being played by men, others for women, and if you play an instrument atypical for your gender, people will often notice.
It was this last part that momentarily stopped me in my tracks. Did I experience these incident myself, as an individual who plays a cross-gender instrument? I remembered, then, briefly not feeling good enough to ‘challenge’ for first-chair in my middle school jazz band because of my gender (though I eventually got over that as my competency on my instrument grew, along with my confidence). I’ve been keeping an eye out for incidents like these now, too. I need more space on my hands to count the number of times I’ve been asked about whether I’m just holding my upright bass for a friend, whether they needed to make specially-sized basses because I’m a (short) woman, or whether I had ever considered playing the flute instead.
The stark truth is that, sometimes, students who play instruments not typically associated with their gender are the recipients of negative attention from their peers and teachers. To be clear, though, throughout this article, I’ll be using ‘sex’ to refer to the biological categorization of an individual and ‘gender’ to refer to a series of beliefs and associations about what is appropriate for a person of a certain sex to do; my hope is that these operational definitions are enough to begin to indicate that any gender associations that are a part of an instrument’s identity are the result of deeply-entrenched beliefs about what is acceptable.
Before we get too far into the literature, let’s take a moment to answer some simple questions. We need to do this now so that you are unprimed and completely honest with yourself.
Think about it. Do you have gender associations about certain musical instruments? Do boys play certain instruments? What about the girls? What about some niggling ideas in the back of your mind about what you saw growing up and what you got used to — were all of the flute players in your middle school girls and were all of the tenor saxophone players boys, like they were in mine? Even though you know that you shouldn’t do it, do you still think that certain instruments make more sense when played by one gender versus the other?
It’s okay if you answered, “yes” to any of those questions. You are definitely not alone – I know that I did.
In this article, I hope to show how important the issue is for the field of music education. I believe that reading through the literature, exploring theories about how gender associations are established, and learning how we as educators can work towards reducing their effects in the classroom has helped me understand how this issue can impact music education.
What We Know
Researchers have found that gender associations of musical instruments exist in a variety of populations. Some examples include both non-music major and music major participants (Abeles & Porter, 1978; Delzell & Leppla, 1992) as well as children (Harrison & O’Neill, 2000). This seems to back up the work of Golombok et al., who found that children begin to demonstrate typed behavior (e.g., behavior that is stereotypically considered to be masculine or feminine) at an early age – and that this typed behavior can frequently result in stereotyping attitudes about oneself or others (2008). If this is the case, then it seems logical to question whether these stereotyping attitudes can function as the basis for their ideas about instruments’ gender associations. You’ll be pleased (relatively, given the subject matter) to know that Sinsel et al. agreed with you.
These researchers presented children with the Children’s Sex Role Inventory and found that those children who scored as masculine preferred masculine-associated instruments (e.g., drums, trombone, trumpet) and children who that received a feminine score preferred feminine-associated instruments (e.g., flute, violin, clarinet). Perhaps not surprisingly, the children who fell between the masculine and feminine poles (an androgynous score) were found to prefer instruments with no strong gender associations (e.g.,. cello and saxophone; these instruments typically fall in the middle of the feminine-masculine spectrum) (1997).
Where Do Stereotyping Attitudes and Associations Come From?
As far as I’m aware, gender stereotyping and associations do not get implanted into every baby before birth. Thus, one would have to assume that these constructs are learned somehow, whether it is through implicit and, usually, frequent exposure (e.g., a male child sees a television commercial for boys that features toy guns, dark colors, and playfighting; a female child sees female flautists in the local high school marching band) or explicit mandates (e.g., a male child’s older brother tells him that violin is for girls; a female child is told that the ‘toys for girls,’ like the Barbies and Easy-Bake Ovens, are down a certain aisle) that caters to a specific stereotype or association. Either way, the causes of these stereotypes and associations are still hard to pinpoint.
What Does It All Mean?
It’s incredibly important for all instrumental educators to know that some, if not all, of their students will likely have gender associations of certain instruments. Making matters worse, people around your students (think parents, friends, acquaintances, other teachers, or even strangers) may share their own instrument stereotypes; this can influence how your students decide which instrument to play.
Delzell and Leppla found that child participants were able to predict what instruments students would want to play; after analyzing their results, they suggested that the data revealed that children notice when a peer is playing a gender-nonstereotypical instrument. Sinsabaugh (2005) found instances of bullying in her qualitative data resulting from free-form interviews with students. This was backed up by the results of a study that looked at online communication in order to examine how today’s youth are using the internet, often anonymously, to express bullying sentiments towards individuals, adults and teens alike, who played the ‘wrong’ kind of instrument (Abeles, Hafeli, & Sears, 2009).
Overall, these results suggest these students can receive strange looks, questions about their instrument, or even bullying behavior from peers and adults alike. As music educators, we all have a responsibility to work towards creating a safe space for all students as well as helping each generation of students understand that everyone has the right to play the instrument of their choice.
What Can We Do?
Music educators can strongly influence a young instrumentalist’s development from day one. Instrument choice, development and proficiency, and continuation on the instrument can all be affected by the way a music educator interacts with the student, especially at the initial moment of selection (Fortney, Boyle, & Decarbo, 1993; Sinsabaugh, 2005; Abeles, 2009b). With this in mind, it is encouraging that researchers believe that gender associations are lessening (Delzell & Leppla, 1992; Abeles, 2009a). Indeed, an analysis of recent studies reveals that teachers are attempting to be unbiased and encourage a wider distribution of music instruments in their own classrooms (Zervoudakes & Tanur, 1994; Johnson & Stewart, 2005). Efforts of this type, though, may be counteracted by the fact that students’ own gender associations frequently result in gender-stereotypical instrument selection (Johnson & Stewart, 2005). Clearly, there is still a lot that can be done.
The first step towards teaching with more sensitivity towards gender issues in your classroom is to engage in some self-reflection and think about what your own gender associations may be and whether you’ve let them affect your teaching. Think about the population of your ensemble: are there students who play gender-nonstreotypical instruments and how do they relate to their peers? If you teach an introductory ensemble, consider the way in which you present instruments to your students. Harrison and O’Neill found that when child participants were shown instrument demonstrations by gender-nonstereotypical instrumentalists, they produced a statistically significant change in preferences for musical instruments (2000). Work with parents during the initial process of selection, as well, as parents can play an important role in this process (Abeles & Porter, 1978; Abeles, 2009b).
Be supportive of all of your students, but try not to go overboard with support for students who play a cross-gender instrument. Though comments can be delivered with good intentions, personal experience tells me that it can be offensive when a person hears about the ‘novelty’ of playing a gender-nonstereotypical instrument. While you may think that it is a compliment to say that someone is ‘cool’ or ‘unique’ for playing something less common for his or her gender, it may be better to, instead, praise the actual musicmaking. Be aware of the social interactions that can take place in your ensemble, both positive and negative, and present a variety of professional role models of both genders for instruments, depending on the make-up of your group. Students can often develop their own perceptions of an individual’s personality solely based on the instrument that they play (Cramer, Million, & Perreault, as cited in Eros, 2008). Also, keep in mind that gender stereotypes can often affect boys more negatively than girls (Delzell & Leppla, 1992; Sinsabaugh, 2005).
Finally, try to maintain a positive environment in your classroom as well as a friendly rapport with all of your students. Even if none of your students ever come forward with stories of being bullied for their choice of instrument, teachers can play an important role in the development of all students’ confidence. Greeting your students with a friendly greeting and smile and letting them know that they can always stop by your office can mean a lot. Above all, be kind, sensitive, and genuine; your students will respond positively and be grateful for the support, no matter what they have chosen to play.
References & Suggested Reading
Abeles, H. F. & Porter, S. Y. (1978). The sex-stereotyping of musical instruments. Journal of Research in Music Education, 26 (2), 65-75.
Abeles, H. (2009a). Are Music Instrument Gender Associations Changing? Unpublished manuscript.
Abeles, H. F. (2009b, June). Factors Affecting Musical Instrument Selection and Continued Participation for Students Who Play Cross-Gendered Instruments. Symposium conducted at the National Association for Music Education, Washington, D. C.
Abeles, H., Hafeli, M., & Sears, C. (2009). The Stress of Playing “Cross-Gendered” Instruments: A Study of Teen Computer Mediated Communication. Unpublished manuscript.
Delzell, J. K. & Leppla, D. A. (1992). Gender association of musical instruments and preferences of fourth-grade students for selected instruments. Journal of Research in Music Education, 40 (2), 93-103.
Eros, J. (2008). Instrument selection and gender stereotypes: A Review of recent literature. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 27 (1), 57-64.
Fortney, P. M., Boyle, J. D., & DeCarbo, N. J. (1993). A study of middle school band students’ instrument choices. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41 (1), 28-39.
Golombok, S., Rust, J., Zervoulis, K., Croudace, T., Golding, J., & Hines, M. (2008). Developmental trajectories of sex-typed behavior in boys and girls: A longitudinal general population study of children aged 2.5-8 years. Child Development, 79 (5), 1583-1593.
Harrison, A. C. & O’Neill, S. A. (2000). Children’s gender-typed preferences for musical instruments: An intervention study. Psychology of Music, 28, 81-97.
Johnson, C. M. & Stewart, E. E. (2005). Effects of sex and race identification on instrument assignment by music educators. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53 (4), 348-357.
Sinsabaugh, K. (2005). Understanding Students Who Cross Over Gender Stereotypes In Musical Instrument Selection. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.
Sinsel, T. J., Dixon, Jr., W. E., & Blades-Zeller, E. (1997). Psychological sex type and preferences for musical instruments in fourth and fifth graders. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45 (3), 390-401.
Zervoudakes, J. & Tanur, J. M. (1994). Gender and musical instruments: Winds of change? Journal of Research in Music Education, 42 (1), 58-67.
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