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Enculturation vs. Acculturation in Musicianship

Is formal music study necessary? Helpful? Can it be better?

Key points

  • Many of the "lessons" of formal education come from the students interacting socially.
  • Enculturation, the social process by which people learn unintentionally, is a powerful force in music.
  • Although enculturation is mainly about the group, it requires inclusiveness of the individual.

There are many professions that essentially require a college degree or some other form of advanced specialized training. Musician is not one of them. In fact, just as there are many musicians who never studied it in school at an advanced level, there are many people with college degrees in music (even advanced degrees) who go on to have careers in some other field altogether.

Rather than going to school and formally studying to develop one’s musicianship, many a music-minded person opts to try to become a musician simply by, well, hanging out with musicians. While simply “hanging out” may be on one end of the informal-formal spectrum, on which graduate school is the other end, the spectrum itself includes other forms, such as apprenticeships and mentoring relationships. What exactly is accomplished through formal music study at an advanced level?

Egor Myznik/Unsplash
Egor Myznik/Unsplash

Much of the learning accomplished through formal education comes not from the lessons taught by teachers, but from the lessons learned by students as they learn together, that is social learning. Enculturation is the socialization process by which people assimilate the knowledge, values, beliefs, and behavioral patterns of the communities in which they are members. Enculturation is typically discussed within the context of children learning the characteristics of their native “heritage culture” (Kim & Alamilla, 2017, p. 28). Additionally, though, children grow up as members of cultures and subcultures that are not defined by ethnic or familial bonds. Schooling often provides such influential social groups to students. The idea of enculturation is well accepted and appreciated in some school contexts, including in school music. For example, many parents of high school music students heartily support their children’s involvement in the school band or choir because they believe the built-in peer group can be counted on to impart desirable values such as academic achievement, civic mindedness, and high moral standards. This perception does not always match reality, but there is no debating that peer groups can be very influential in children’s behavioral development and learning. Enculturation is a powerful contributor to learning.

With enculturation, the normative values, knowledge, and behaviors of a culture develop organically from the people who are members. While enculturation is mainly a process of imparting group values to people, it also requires a degree of inclusiveness of individuals. The culture’s preservation and perpetuation depends on additional people being accepted into the group and on these “new people” regarding the cultural characteristics as relevant and representative of them. In this way, enculturation is a reciprocal process: pre-existing cultural norms influence current group members; and the group members themselves inform and reshape the characteristics that are transmitted via enculturation.

Acculturation is a term that was once frequently used interchangeably with enculturation, but it is, in fact, best used to describe a different social process. Acculturation refers to processes through which people change their values, beliefs, and behavioral patterns in order to conform to a dominant culture. This can involve deculturation, which is the suppression or elimination of one’s traditional cultural beliefs and practices as the result of contact with a dominant culture.

Whereas enculturation involves organic processes and is facilitated by inclusiveness, acculturation and deculturation often result from institutionalized or systematized expectations of people. Acculturation seems to aptly describe the socialization expected of young people who study music in Western colleges and universities. Characteristics of “conservatory culture” (Kingsbury, 2010) are found not only in conservatories but also in U.S. schools of music that are not conservatories, per se (Austin, et al., 2010). Music study in conservatory culture is defined by competition between students for performance opportunities, authoritative master teacher instruction in one-to-one lessons, and striving for note-perfect performance of classical or serious art music (Persson, 2000). Although this high-pressure environment seems to impel some students to become advanced performers, it often produces far different results for others. Those who fail to acculturate to this distinctive culture do not thrive in their music studies, and they may not survive. Stigmatized as those who “can’t hack it,” some suffer harm to their personal well-being and can end up dropping out of music altogether.

Therefore, while a conservatory approach to skill development may be appropriate for performing musicians aspiring to reach the highest levels of classical music performance, it is surely not conducive to the musical goals of many others. Acculturating to conservatory culture can require some students to deny the musical values and traditions that heretofore had defined their musical identity. This amounts to deculturation or culture clash, which educational research has long established as a major impediment to learning, including specifically in American higher education (Hamedani & Markus, 2019)

More ideally, in an inclusive social environment, participants avail themselves of the learning power of enculturation. In an accepting social setting, in which learners can be who they truly are personally and musically, they have a chance to contribute to the beliefs, knowledge, and skills that are valued by the group while simultaneously having their own growth nurtured by the group-reinforced values. With the right people, a positive growth-supportive social environment can emerge in a group in any setting, whether backstage in a city’s bars with live music or in the recital halls of the music school across town.

It is important to note, however, for those of us who are involved in school music, that just being well-intentioned about musician inclusion is not enough. Certain ideas about competition and exclusivity from the conservatory model have more or less been systematized in music education at the secondary school level and in higher education. As with any matter of systemic prejudice, an orientation against musical inclusivity can become an implicit bias. We cannot make progress simply by intellectually adopting an attitude of inclusion. Making headway likely takes deliberate programmatic initiatives designed to produce greater inclusion of diversity in terms of musicians, musics, and ways of being musical.


Austin, J. R., Isbell, D. S., & Russell, J. A. (2012). A multi-institution exploration of secondary socialization and occupational identity among undergraduate music majors. Psychology of Music, 40(1), 66-83. DOI: 10.1177/0305735610381886

Hamedani, M. Y. G., & Markus, H. R. (2019). Understanding culture clashes and catalyzing change: A culture cycle approach. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, article 700.

Kim, B. S. K., & Alamilla, S. G. (2017). Acculturation and enculturation: A review of theory and research. In A. M. Czopp & A. W. Blume (Eds.), Social issues in living color: Challenges and solutions from the perspective of ethnic minority psychology: Societal and global issues., Vol. 2 (pp. 25–52). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Kingsbury, H. (2010). Music, talent, & Performance: A conservatory culture system (2nd. ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Persson, R. S. (2000). Survival of the fittest or the most talented?: Deconstructing the myth of the musical maestro. Journal of secondary gifted education, 12(1), 25-38.

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