Extract from Competition, is Music Education the loser by James R. Austin published in Music Educators Journal February 1990 vol. 76 no. 6 21-25

Why do we compete?

Frank A. Beach, one of the founders of early school music contests in the USA, suggested that the purpose of contests was “not to win a prize but to pace one another on the road to excellence.”

Is competition a worthwhile educational tool, or does competition, by its very nature, undermine the learning process?

Does competition provide all students with a healthy experience, or are some students destined to flounder under such setups?

If structured contests and other forms of competition are not the answer, to what other educationally viable alternatives can music educators turn in their daily efforts to attract students to music courses, to motivate students to practice, and to maximize student achievement? (Austin,

The myths of competition

The expression “A little healthy competition never hurt anyone” mirrors our common belief that competition is an effective means of generating student interest, stimulating students toward higher levels of achievement, measuring students’ achievement in relation to that of other competitors, and preparing students for the eventualities of winning and losing in the real world. Surveys of public attitudes toward music competition confirm this; contests and other forms of competition are perceived as being valuable, if not essential, experiences for music students, and many directors feel a pressure to be competitive in relation to other school music programs. (Burnsed&Sochinski, 1983)

Kohn argues, however, that many of our beliefs about competition are based more on folk wisdom than on scientific fact. Among the myths that he attacks are the ideas that

1) competition is inevitable as a part of our human nature;

2) competition motivates us to do our best;

3) learning to compete builds character and self-confidence.

(Kohn, 1986)

The inevitability myth

The more avid proponents of competition often point to the pervasiveness of competition in our society as convincing evidence that being competitive is part of human nature and that a predisposition to compete must somehow be essential for survival and advancement as human beings.

Bil Gilbert, who has examined society’s fascination with competitive athletics, suggests that most people view competition as the “behavioral equivalent of gravity”-a necessary force guiding each individual to his or her proper niche in the world. (Gilbert, 1988)

Kohn counters that our fetish for competition is not innate but is, rather, a learned behavior. We perpetuate our belief in competition, he contends, by teaching our children to compete as we did and then citing the competitiveness of our children as proof that competition is inevitable. Blinded by this circular pattern of reasoning, we easily overlook the many interdependent aspects of living that are integral to survival in our own society, as well as the many foreign cultures that are clearly more cooperative than competitive in nature. Kohn adds that individuals who rely most heavily on the human nature argument are often those who have benefited from competition in the past and who will benefit from maintaining the status quo in the future.

The motivation myth

Many individuals propose that competition motivates us to do our best and that without competition we would wallow in a sea of mediocrity. Kohn, however, cites an impressive and growing body of research literature indicating that competition does not improve performance quality. Moreover, on complex tasks that require higher order thinking skills (such as creativity or problem solving), competition may actually interfere with learning and subsequent achievement.

The large gap between research findings and our intuitive beliefs on this matter might be explained as a difference in perspective. Competition connoisseurs are naturally drawn to the excitement and thrill of victory that surround extraordinary performances and winning performers. Researchers, on the other hand, generally concern themselves with larger populations that include not only elite performers but also average and struggling performers-individuals who often flounder under competitive conditions and bring the average performance score back down to earth in school achievement studies. (Austin,19..)

Martin Maehr, a presenter at the third session of the Ann Arbor Symposium on Motivation and Creativity, cautioned music educators about this phenomenon: “There is a tendency in music education to place elites and regulars on the same track, designing the system in such a way that most will inevitably fall by the wayside with only the cream of the crop surviving.

Competitions, contests, and recitals all seem to revolve around that end …. One does not create enduring motivational patterns by showing people that they are incompetent. Insofar as an activity is structured to do that, it will be a motivational failure for the large majority of the participants.” (Maer, 1983)

The character-building myth

Kohn states that feelings of competence are central to each individual’s self-esteem. “Competence” can be defined, most simply, as doing well in relation to some accepted standard of performance. Yet, many people confuse the term competence with “competitive success” or “winning.” These ideas are not analogous. It is quite possible to display competence without engaging in competitive behavior (for example, the master craftsman working in isolation). Conversely, one might enjoy competitive success (winning a swimming event) without attaining a desired level of competence (surpassing a previous best time by five seconds).

In Kohn’s view, our society tends to place greater emphasis on winning than on the demonstration of competence.


James R. Austin, Competition, is Music Education the loser?  Music Educators Journal February 1990 vol. 76 no. 6 21-25

Vernon Burnsed and James Sochinski, Research on Competition.” Music Educators Journal 70, no 20 (October 1983), 25-27

Alfie Kohn, No Contest: the case against competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986)

Bill Gilbers, “Competition, Is It What Life’s All About?” Sports Illustrated 68, no 20 (May 16 a988), 88

Martin L. Maer, “The Development of Continuing Interests in Music.” in Motivation and Creativity (Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference, 1983) 10