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Why don't girls play guitar?

Peaches Geldof playing bass guitar

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

When schoolchildren pick a musical instrument to learn, they are too often influenced by gender stereotypes, says a report. So why don't boys like the flute or girls play the guitar?

Crash, bang, thump!

When a child utters the words "I want to play the drums", even the most musically-minded parent's heart must sink a little at the thought of all that, well, noise.

But the more peaceful households are those with girls because they prefer the harp or flute while boys go for electric guitar and drums, according to a report by the Institute of Education.

FOR THE BOYS...
electric guitar 81%
bass guitar 81%
tuba 77%
kit drums 75%
trombone 71%

Many instruments learnt in schools are dominated by one sex or the other, says the study which examined the provision of music for five to 16-year-olds in every local authority in England and Wales.

Only one in 10 school harpists and flautists are male, while the electric and bass guitars are enjoyed overwhelmingly by boys.

There are many reasons why strides made in bringing equality to other areas, such as school sports, have not reached the music room, says Professor Sue Hallam, co-author of the report.

...AND THE GIRLS...
harp 90%
flute 89%
voice 80%
fife/piccolo 79%
oboe 78%

"I think that over a long period of time, these kinds of ideas about what is suitable for children to play, or adults to play, have been around for so long we've internalised it," she says.

"So when a child says 'I want to play this instrument', we're thinking of a particular gender."

That does not mean adults are saying 'That's unsuitable' but they might look surprised or even horrified, and give off signals they are not aware of, she says.

...AND FOR BOTH
African drums
French horn
cornet
saxophone
tenor horn

The size of the instrument (bigger, male), its pitch (higher, female) and the physical characteristics needed to play it could be partly responsible.

Another factor may be that brass instruments and drums have long been used militarily and therefore are associated with war.

"I don't think it's terribly logical because if you talk about size being a factor, you have the harp, one of the largest instruments, dominated by girls.

"So yes, the pitch of the instrument, how heavy it is to carry, possibly what it looks like, and traditions that go back centuries and which we just don't think about are factors. It's so ingrained in us, we don't realise we're doing it."

Peer pressure

The report warns some pupils fear being bullied by picking the "wrong" instrument, and it suggests schools introduce single-sex bands to force both sexes to try other instruments.

Do boys and girls have different biological preferences? Only this week scientists in the US who worked on monkeys concluded boys have a basic predisposition for masculine toys.

Sir James Galway
My granddad played the flute, my dad played the flute, my uncle played the flute
Sir James Galway

But Victoria Rowe, who has completed a PhD on gender in music, says children don't develop a firm idea about "male" and "female" instruments until about six years old.

Some research suggests boys prefer "cool" instruments while leaving classical music to the girls.

"This may be connected with boys liking to pick up their music in social and informal ways, learning by picking up tips from their peers, rather than by attending weekly lessons with a teacher.

"Certainly it's likely that peer pressure is responsible for many of the instrument choices made by boys and girls.

"And it's somehow easier for a girl to cross over into 'boys' territory and play a trumpet than for a boy to take up the flute."

The report says girls are more open to taking "male" instruments as they get older, and the fact that some of the world's leading performers buck the trend suggests there is much more fluidity in the professional world.

Convenience

Sir James Galway had already tried the tin whistle and violin when aged nine or 10 he took up the instrument which later earned him a global reputation.

"My granddad played the flute, my dad played the flute, my uncle played the flute, who learnt from his granddad and taught me," he says. "Everyone in the street played the flute."

Being brought up in a Protestant Belfast neighbourhood, where bands are part of the community, Sir James' upbringing was not typical of many in Britain.

Most flute bands had no women in them but his, the 39th Old Boys Flute Band, was one of the first to include girls.

So no-one batted an eyelid when he followed in his father's footsteps. But he thinks the reason why so many girls today play the flute is purely physical.

"For girls it's much easier to carry the flute than it is to carry the euphonium or the tuba. It's just a thing of convenience. Little girls play the flute and sometimes they go on to be big girls who play the flute."

Julianne Regan
It seemed like a freakish thing for me to be interested in
Julianne Regan
All About Eve

It's not an issue among professional musicians, he says, and men occupy first flute roles in leading orchestras like the New York Philharmonic.

But it's a different story in the otherwise more enlightened world of pop, says All About Eve bass guitarist and lead singer Julianne Regan, where gender stereotyping still holds sway. The electric guitar is still seen as a male instrument, despite great exponents in recent years like Nancy Wilson of Heart and Charlotte Hatherley of Ash, she says.

Given a Woolworths electric guitar by a male cousin when aged 15, Regan was forced to teach herself.

"There was no opportunity to learn anything other than traditional orchestral instruments at school and so I muddled along on my own and felt quite isolated as I went to an all-girl school and none of my peers seemed to have any interest in electric guitar.

"It seemed like a freakish thing for me to be interested in. I was quite popular at school and had a load of friends, but this was just seen as 'one of my little quirks'."

MOST POPULAR OVERALL
violin 19%
guitar (acoustic, electric or bass) 16.3%
flute 10%
clarinet 9%
keyboards 7%
trumpet 4.6%
piano 4.5%
drum kits 4.3%

Her guitar skills were only nurtured when she moved to London and joined a band.

Thirty years after Regan struggled to find support at school for her musical passion, there are more schoolchildren learning instruments than ever before, thanks in part to a new effort by councils to begin musical education at age seven.

The question is whether that will reinforce existing classroom prejudices or liberate future generations when first inspired to make music.


Below is a selection of your comments.

A lot of people seem to be disagreeing with the report - Statistics are statistics, they are pretty hard to disagree with! At my school, the balance seems pretty close to the statistics. Although, increasingly more girls are taking up instruments generally considered to be for male players.
Thomas Woodhouse - Jones, Chippenham UK

Tsula2, just because you play every cool 'bloke' instrument doesn't mean the report is wrong. It just means that you're in the minority! As a keen piano player myself since the age of 6 I'm very disappointed to see that only 4.5% of kids play the old ebony and ivory...
MrTom, Norwich

Interesting report. Here's a subsidiary question: Why do so many women play bass guitar? Here's a selection: Suzi Quatro, Kim Clarke (Defunkt), Meshell N'degeocello, Carole Kay (session player, Good Vibrations etc.), Tina Weymouth a variety of Slits, Raincoats etc. and many more
Mark, London

When I was about 10 years old, I wanted to play the flute. But due to having asthma my mum advised me against it. Instead, I decided I fancied having a go at playing the guitar. I have now been playing it for 17 years (probably far longer than I would have played the flute for)and it's a decision I have never looked back on. The guitar is a fantastic instrument and I would say girls playing one most definitely look cool!
Rachel Robson, London

This report looks at the issue from a gender point of view. I think while there is some validity in that, I do think that most instruments attract a player of a certain personality. There is a reason why singers sing and not drum and bass players (often) don't sing, and that is their personalities. I have worked in the music industry for a couple of decades and it is a well know fact, that your personality almost draws you to certain instruments. So in my view it is then these personality differences that exist on very general level between boys and girls that lead to the differences discussed by the article. Nothing that needs to be specifically addressed to balance any numbers, so long as instruments are made available to just whoever wants to play them.
Nik Crosina, Stevenage

Good grief! Who did they survey?? My 17-year-old daughter is a brilliant (classical and electric) guitarist and my 14-year-old son, clearly doesn't fit the demographic with his clarinet. It doesn't help, however that the quality of peripatetic teaching in schools isn't that good everywhere and private lessons are expensive.
Cheryl Davies, Lancashire

It is true, up to a point. Certainly fewer boys play instruments such as flute or violin, although I do know many that do, but not nearly as many as guitar. I've played piano since I was 7 and guitar since I was 12 (17 now) and play mostly for pleasure, but I get the impression that some people play certain instruments eg guitar or drums for street cred'. It is the case that some instruments are perceived to be cooler, but if that's the only reason people have to take up the instrument, the chances are we will be left with a generation of poor musicians, since people won't bother with the theory and just want to jump around making noise. Shame, as I know girls who play guitar... and they look damn cool when they do! We need more!
Johannes Walker, London

When I was 16 I wanted to play the drums. A music teacher had commented that I had rhythm so that inspired me. My music teacher at school said 'girls don't play drums', so that inspired me even more. The Deputy Headmistress' son played the drums and he taught me. He is the drummer with P J Harvey! 23 years on I still play the drums and have my own kit in the garage, but I wish I had more time to practise. Like everything in the world, don't be put off by sexist views, you could be the next musical prodigy!
Ashlee, Stevenage, Hertfordshire

One thing not mentioned above is (and again this may be more perception than reality) that classical instruments and classical music is about perfecting an art. Guitars and drums are about creativity and rebellion, again these are perceived feminine and masculine traits. Also, and I am so sorry for saying this as I am about the most PC person I know, but.... Girls just don't look cool with guitars.
Nich Hill, Portsmouth UK

Shame about girls not picking up more mainstream instruments as much - I always thought there was something very attractive about a girl playing drums or the guitar. There are some fantastic female rockers out there, just not enough, and I would have thought in this day and age with more women liking guitar orientated bands they would be influenced a bit to have a go
Wayne, A'dam, NL

I don't agree with the report. I and my older sister played the drums - drum kit, all manner of percussion and my daughter also plays. My daughter and I also play all types of guitar, including bass, electric guitar, ukulele and dulcimer. I also played tuba, trombone, trumpet and French horn. My son plays drums as well. Our local primary gives each Year 4 child a violin for the year and both classes are taught once a week together by a wonderful team of teachers from Southwest Surrey Arts Centre.
Tsula2, Haslemere

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