What does it mean to be musical? An examination of musical self-perception

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University of Delaware
Music is a basic human instinct. We are all musical beings, uniquely created to be musical and engage musically with the world. Yet, there are some people who do not feel that they are musical, believing instead that musicality is a quality that some people have and others don’t. This common idea is contrary to the theory of musical potential proposed by Gordon (2001), which holds that all people are born with musical potential, a quality he calls music aptitude. But if all people are born with potential to be musical, why is it that some people embrace their musicality while others refuse to acknowledge it? The purpose of this research was to develop an understanding of why some people consider themselves to be musical while others do not, and where the colloquial definition of musical comes from. The present study was conducted in two phases: Phase One entailed an online survey that was distributed to 840 participants; Phase Two entailed interviews with ten survey participants who were selected based upon their diverse responses to the survey questions. Prevailing themes from both phases of the study indicated that to be considered musical, a person must be musically engaged, with the most salient ways of musical engagement being listening to music, playing an instrument, or singing. Findings also suggested that for almost all people, whether they believe they are musical or not, music is an important part of everyday life.