An Exploration of Personality Traits in Older Adult Amateur Musicians

By Coffman, Don D. | Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME), September 2007 | Go to article overview

An Exploration of Personality Traits in Older Adult Amateur Musicians


Coffman, Don D., Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME)


The "leading edge" of the "baby boomers," the generation born between 1946 and 1964, began turning 60 in 2006. Much has been written in the popular press about how this generation is redefining the concepts of retirement and old age. "Boomers" are more active than their predecessors and there is considerable interest in "successful aging." Thirty years ago our society essentially wrote-off senior citizens because they were in the "twilight" of their lives. Now, society is embracing the notion that older adults have much to contribute. One example is the growth of the New Horizons International Music Association (NHIMA) for older adult bands, orchestras, and choirs (Coffman & Levy, 1997; Ernst & Emmons, 1992). What began with one band in the early 1990s has swelled to 120 organizations across the United States, Canada, and Ireland (http://www.newhorizonsmusic.org/).

Having been involved in leading one of these concert bands for a number of years I have repeatedly been asked, "What kind of person is interested in learning an instrument or re-learning one?" Inquirers typically want to know to whom they should appeal as they establish adult bands in their communities.

Some research (Coffman, 1996; Coffman & Adamek, 1999; Coffman & Adamek,

2001) has shown that the primary motives for joining an amateur music ensemble are social and musical--people want to express themselves musically and with others, not just by themselves. Are these motives based in discernible, stable, personality traits? Anthony Kemp notes, "That a person chooses to be a musician indicates that he probably has both the ability and the temperament to be so" (Kemp, 1981a, p. 3). This assertion suggests that personality may be involved in an older adult's decision to join a musical group such as New Horizons.

Kemp has perhaps contributed more to our understanding of musicians' personalities than any other researcher, and much of his work can be reviewed in his book The Musical Temperament: Psychology and Personality of Musicians (1996). Kemp's approach over the years has been to administer Raymond Cattell's Sixteen Factor Personality Questionnaire to samples of different groups of musicians and non-musicians. He did not test older adult amateur musicians. This study followed a similar plan to see how the personality traits of older adult amateur musicians compare with professional musicians, traits which have been well documented by Kemp.

The study of personality traditionally has been approached in two ways. One way is by examining personality traits that are viewed by researchers (such as Cattell, 1973) as stable. Cattell's 16 primary factors have some overlap and he clustered them to create eight second-order factors (Cattell, 1973; Cattell & Kline, 1977) and more recently, five global factors, indicating factor directionality on these polar scales with "+" and "-" symbols (Russell, M. & Karol, D. 1994, see Table 1).

The other approach has been to examine personality types and is most commonly known from the work of Carl Jung, from which came the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI, Myers & McCaulley, 1985), and the Eysenck Personality Inventory (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1964). Jung (1923, 1928) categorized personality on a limited number of dimensions: introversion--extraversion, sensation--intuition, and thinking--feeling. The MBTI identifies two ways of perceiving information (sensing--intuition), two ways of judging that information (thinking--feeling), and combines these modes with a preference for perceiving or judging with a tendency towards introversion or extraversion, resulting in 16 personality types. Eysenck limited his examination to what he believes are the primary dimensions of personality--extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1976). Types can be viewed as clusters of traits, so the controversy that has ensued concerning these approaches springs from arguments about the consistency of traits, their number, and whether they have been accurately identified. …

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