Attitudes toward Music Contests

Excerpt – Competition in Music in the Twentieth Century by Rohrer. P. Thomas (2012)

“From the earliest music contests, a lack of consensus has remained concerning competition and its role in the educational process. The debate on the merits of competition in U.S. music education began with the planning of the first national contest in 1922. Supporters of the contest movement argued that a national contest (specifically for band) provided motivation for excellence in performance as well as added incentive for participation. Others, however, voiced concerns about the ramifications of encouraging interest in music through competition.” (Rohrer,2013)

Ronald J. Neil has summarized the diverse philosophies regarding competition: Its strength lies in the stimulation given students to do their best; its weakness lies in the fact that it may become an end in itself. When the latter is true, the goal in the mind of the student is not that of giving a fine musical performance but rather of receiving a coveted rating. (Neil, 1944)

Competition in Music: Why?

The first state competitions, All-Kansas school music contests, began in 1915, under the direction of Frank A. Beach, who emphasized that the purpose of the contests was to pace participants toward excellence rather than mere victory over one another.(Austin, 1988)

Larue surveyed selected Alabama band directors, students, and parents to poll their opinions on competitive elements in band programs. Combined results showed only three items rated higher than sixty percent on a scale of one to five: (1) “receiving a high rating makes the band feel good,”(2) “marching contests raise the spirit of the band,” and (3) “contests raise standards of performance.” (Larue, 1986)

The competitive elements rated highly in this study emphasize motivation and standards of performance as desirable. In a study of Montana high school band members, Werpy found competition to be a factor predicting overall musical motivation. (Werpy, 1995)

Based on the history of the contest movement and on opinion surveys conducted by others, Austin concluded that contests are justified more by positive perception than strong empirical evidence:

“The previous studies and related research by others suggest that an explicit contradiction exists between society’s view of competition and the empirical picture that has emerged. Society values competition as a vestige from our past—a “true” measure of value or worth. Yet, modern research points to the havoc that competition can create in the educational or developmental processes. While often defended on the basis of its ability to elicit “virtuous effort,” competition appears to be equally capable of generating a negative type of interaction among students that, especially for those experiencing repeated failure, may lead to diminished performance, anxiety, avoidance behavior, loss of self-esteem, decreased interest, or discontinued involvement in some task or activity.” (Austin, 1988)

Austin’s study evaluated music contests on the basis of scientific investigation rather than popularly held opinions.

The Supporters of Competition

Despite concern over music competition, popular support for the activity appears to have an edge. Generally, arguments for the continuation of competition gravitate toward those of Marguerite Hood, who in 1936, expressed a fear about reduction of standards with the removal of competitive elements.

The Neil study in 1944 found that directors valued contests for (1) the use of better music, (2) the improvement of instrumentation, (3) increased interest in school music by parents and students, (4) adjudicators’ comments, and (5) the opportunity for students to hear other groups.

In addition to general values of contests, the Neil survey obtained directors’ opinions regarding student benefits: (1) incentive for hard work, (2) a standard for performance, and (3) a good “social education.” (Doyle, 1964)


Rohrer. P. Thomas, Competition in Music in the Twentieth Century (Journal of Research in Music Education April 1, 2012)

Ronald J. Neil, “The Development of the Competition-Festival in Music Education” (Ph.D. diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1944)

Noreen Diamond Burdett, “The High School Music Contest Movement in the United States” (D.M.A. diss., Boston University, 1985)

James R. Austin, “Competitive and Noncompetitive Goal Structures: An Analysis of Motivation and Achievement Outcomes among Elementary Band Students” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1988)

Peter James Larue, “A Study to Determine the Degree of Consensus Regarding Outcomes of Band Participation and the Competitive Elements in Band Programs among Band Directors, Band Members, and Members of Parent Booster Groups” (Ed.D. diss., University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, 1986)

James R. Austin, “Competitive and Noncompetitive Goal Structures: An Analysis of Motivation and Achievement Outcomes among Elementary Band Students” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1988)

Steve Francis Werpy, “Relationships between Selected Factors of Motivation for Participation in High School Band and General Motivation for Musical Experience” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1995).

Doyle C. Johnson, “A Survey and Analysis of the Problems and Criticisms of Texas Public School Band Contests” (M.A. thesis, Sam Houston State Teachers College, 1964), p. 82.