Sometimes, Gender Matters

How do children decide what instrument is appropriate for a person of their sex, and, by extension, for themselves? Their decisions probably have a lot to do with what they see in the environment around them, but demonstrations of various instruments by people of both sexes can make a difference, according to research by Janice N. Killian and Shauna L. Satrum.

In their study, published in a recent issue of Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, these researchers looked at 104 students from kindergarten, third grade, and fifth grade. About half the participants in the study were girls; the other half were boys. About a third of the group was in each grade 5, grade 3, and kindergarten.

Killian and Satrum had classes watch live demonstrations of six instruments (flute, clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone, and tuba) performed by “either all male or all female university music majors.” The researchers discovered that

  • “Boys who viewed all male demonstrators of [all six instruments] chose more brass instruments, whereas girls who viewed female demonstrators chose more woodwind instruments.”
  • “Both boys and girls who saw opposite-gender demonstrators picked brass and woodwind [instruments] in nearly equal numbers.”

Say the researchers, “To that the extent that one can say that woodwinds are stereotypically feminine and brass instruments are stereotypically masculine … girls tended to prefer predominantly feminine instruments” when women demonstrated them.

“Boys appeared more likely to prefer predominantly masculine instruments when males demonstrated them.”
Do your own survey:  Do your students think some instruments are more “feminine” or “masculine” than others? Why do they think this? Lead a short discussion on this topic. Ask students to defend their positions. Be prepared for some interesting answers—and be ready with your own opinion if the question is turned on you.
MENC member Janice N. Killian and colleague Shauna L. Satrum teach in the School of Music at Texas Tech University, Lubbock. Their study, “The Effect of Demonstrator Gender on Wind Instrument Preference of Kindergarten, Third-Grade, and Fifth-Grade Students,” can be read by MENC members at no charge in Update: Applications of Research in Music Educationvol. 29, no. 2, pp. 13–19. (Member log-in required.)

–Ella Wilcox, June 15, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (