Recent Research—Identification of the Musically Talented Student: The Assessment of Musical Potential and Musical Performance

Winter 1993 Masthead

Joanne Haroutounian
The University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

There is a rising tide of interest in the performing arts within gifted education, and many questions arise concerning effective procedures for identifying students who are musically gifted. Defining criteria that reflects behavioral characteristics and fundamental abilities of talented music students and describe the specific qualities of performance is essential in creating a valid procedure.

The musically gifted student is not only taught within the school environment, but also through private lessons, in specialized schools and summer programs for the performing arts, and in gifted arts programs. Teachers who work within these different areas can provide valuable information concerning suitable criteria because they assess the process of improved performance and the growth of talent on a daily basis. In addition, asking professional performers how they feel about musical potential and assessment of performance can provide a perspective from an artist’s viewpoint.

This study began with an analysis of identification instruments that were sent to The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Virginia. This analysis established a representative starting point of the criteria used nationally to identify musical talent within gifted programs. Additional audition forms and admission procedures were collected from performing arts schools, Governor’s School programs, and music teacher organizations, in order to compare criteria used to assess performance and identification of talent within the specialized discipline of music.

The analysis of identification instruments revealed that procedures vary according to the availability of specific programming for those identified as musically gifted. Basic teacher checklists and rating scales begin the process, with some procedures offering a broader base of scales filled out by the student, peers, and parents. If programming is offered, this initial stage is followed by an informal interview and more specialized rating scales filled out by the music teacher. An assessment of musical performance is a common element in identification, usually done by an audition or by an informal performance experience evaluated by specialists within the field of music.

The analysis indicated that testing of music aptitude is not part of the normal procedure for identification. Gordon’s Primary Measures of Music Audiation (1979) tests which discriminate low and average music aptitude were used in a few identification procedures sent to the NRC/GT. The Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (1982), designed to discriminate and measure “music aptitudes of children with high music aptitudes” from ages 6-9 (Gordon, 1987, p. 120-121), were not included in any of the identification procedures.

A survey form was developed from the analysis of identification and audition instruments which contained lists of characteristics to assess musical potential and performance. Each list contained a five point scale from 1.00 (of no importance) to 5.00 (absolutely essential). The survey form also included checklists of representative identification procedures, as well as specific performance procedures used in auditions.

The survey was distributed to private music teachers, music teachers within the public schools, administrators and/or teachers in performing arts schools and summer programs, specialists within performing arts/gifted education, and professional performing musicians. A total of 121 surveys were completed, representing 23 different states. Only 13 gifted specialists completed the survey, with five of these gifted specialists returning blank forms, explaining a lack of an identification process or program within the performing arts in their school area.

Assessment of Musical Potential

The chart below contains characteristics in the Musical Potential Rating Scale of the survey together with the survey group mean results.

Musical Potential Rating Scale
Group Means
Shows a sustained interest in music and performing
Is self-disciplined
* +3.
Responds discriminately to rhythm, melody, harmony
* +4.
Can perceive fine differences in musical tone (pitch, loudness, timbre)
Shows commitment in arts area
Can sing in tune well
Is self critical; sets high standards
Shows sensitivity to aesthetic elements of music, mood, style
* +9.
Remembers and reproduces melodies with ease and accuracy
Can express emotions through sound or music
Has a high degree of tonal memory
Is highly creative
Shows confidence in performing
Enjoys moving to rhythms and music
Evokes emotional responses from audience
* +16.
Can identify a variety of sounds heard at a given moment
Is gifted in academic areas

The characteristics in italic print indicate those that were areas considered important (4) to absolutely essential (5). Those with an asterisk (*) are elements that music psychologists recognize as definitive of music aptitude. The characteristics with a (+) are found within the Scales for Rating the Behavioral Characteristics of Superior Students (SRBCSS) by Renzulli, Smith, White, Callahan, and Hartman (1976), a rating scale used in many general identification procedures.

It is of interest that the two highest rated characteristics dealt with general behavior rather than specific musical behavior. The characteristic of sustained interest, found within the SRBCSS as noted above, was found on a majority of the instruments studied. The results of a one-way analysis of variance paired contrast statistical procedure showed that the characteristic of self-discipline showed a significant contrast (p<05) between those teachers working in more specialized performing arts settings (private teachers, performing arts schools, performers) and those within the normal school setting (gifted specialists, music teachers). This may be a characteristic to explore in the development of future identification instruments.

The next characteristics listed are more music specific than the former. Responding to rhythm discriminately is found within the SRBCSS scales. The musical behavior of responding to a fuller range of musical qualities (rhythm, melody, harmony) merges perceptual listening to student performance. The ability to perceive fine differences in music is the basic measurement component used in Edwin Gordon’s tests of musical aptitude: PMMA (1979), IMMA (1982), MAP (1965). This characteristic is also found in the SRBCSS scales mentioned above.

The characteristic of being gifted in academic areas had the lowest mean, 2.92, indicating it is rated not necessary (2) to helpful (3). The survey results regarding academic giftedness should be noted with interest by individuals who organize programs in the performing arts. By requiring an academic test score level as an entrance requirement to programs for the musically talented, we are identifying the academically gifted who are musicians, and possibly omitting the students who can be recognized for their musical talent, regardless of academic test records.

Assessment of Musical Performance

Some type of performance audition is normally part of any selection process within the performing arts. Analysis within this study indicates that audition forms and procedures vary greatly, and are usually locally devised.

The following characteristics for assessing musical performance contain criteria commonly found within audition and adjudication forms for musical performance:

Musical Performance Rating Scale
Group Means
Pitch/note accuracy
Rhythmic accuracy
Steady rhythmic pulse
Dynamic contrasts
Technical fluency
Appropriate tempo
Sensitivity to mood
Tonal color
Detailed articulation/bowing
Creativity in interpretation
Stylistic awareness
Confident memory
Poised stage presence

The italic-face characteristics are those rated as important (4) to absolutely essential (5) by the music teachers/performers. They indicated that a performance should be accurate, rhythmically steady and precise, with dynamic contrast, and performed with technical fluency.

The characteristic that received the lowest rating was originality (3.04). This may be explained by the lack of experience assessing improvisatory type of performances within music auditions. Musical training emphasizes technical facility and usually consists of performance from a score rather than composition or improvisation. This should spark the interest of teachers within gifted education, where creativity is a vital element in teaching and identification. Nurturing creative experiences within music may be a unique contribution that music programs within gifted education can offer talented music students.

A one-way analysis of variance paired contrast statistical procedure showed significant contrasts (p<.05) between the performer/private teachers who work outside the school setting and the performing arts/gifted/music teachers and specialists who work within the school setting in every area of the scale. What do these differences tell us about the assessment of musical performance?

Measurement experts agree that musical performance, by its very nature, is inherently subjective (Boyle & Radocy, 1987). Boyle and Radocy (1987) and Warnick (1985) agree that there is a great need of research in the area of musical performance to “improve the reliability and validity of performance appraisal” (Warnick, 1985, p. 40). The different responses to the assessment survey represent teachers who work with varied levels of performance within their teaching, and who each have a subjective idea of what a quality performance entails. This survey has gathered criteria that may assist in building a reliable and valid assessment instrument for performance.

The current study will expand on the ideas gleaned from the survey and the numerous comments received on the forms through interviews with persons within each representative group. By gathering valuable opinions and by further clarifying criteria from teachers/performers within all these different settings, hopefully, we can break new ground in building reliable identification procedures that will uncover potential musical talent and develop meaningful programs that nurture the creativity within these gifted musicians.

Boyle, D. J., & Radocy, R. E. (1987). Measurement and evaluation of musical experiences. New York, NY: Schirmer.
Gordon, E. (1987). The nature, description, measurement, and evaluation of music aptitudes. Chicago, IL: G.I.A. Publications.
Gordon, E. (1982). Intermediate measures of music audiation. Chicago, IL: G.I.A. Publications.
Gordon. E. (1979). Primary measures of music audiation. Chicago, IL: G.I.A. Publications.
Gordon, E. (1965). Musical aptitude profile. Chicago, IL: G.I.A. Publications.
Renzulli, J. S., Smith L. H., White A. J., Callahan, C. M., & Hartman, R. K. (1976) Scales for rating behavioral characteristics of superior students. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Warnick, G. C. (1985). Discovery and recognition of the artistically talented. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 1, 221-238.


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