mdw student Kathrin Fabian offers some insights from her music education master’s degree thesis, Conception of a Music-Based Pedagogical-Psychological Programme on the Basis of Self-Determination Theory for the Promotion of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in Inclusive Music-Making (2022).

Ever heard of the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness? No? Then I’d like to provide you with a brief introduction to them. Self-determination theory (SDT, Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000) defines these as universal basic psychological needs that are essential to human motivation and well-being as well as to optimum psychological development.

But what exactly are these psychological “supervitamins”? For my master’s degree thesis, I investigated the basic psychological needs defined by SDT, needs that the following will attempt to briefly describe.

SDT forwards the proposition that there are specifiable psychological and social nutrients which, when satisfied within the interpersonal and cultural contexts of an individual’s development, facilitate growth, integrity, and well-being. (Ryan & Deci 2017)

To be self-determined or autonomous in their actions, people must (1) be aware of the needs, processes, feelings, cognitions, and relationships that make up their true or integrated sense of who they are and (2) act in accordance with that integrated sense of self. To a large extent, this involves people allowing their basic needs to emerge and behaving in ways that satisfy those needs. (Ryan & Deci, 2017)

Autonomy is self-determined behaviour. But what exactly does “self-determined” mean if, for example, an inner voice in the background “warns” me to be this way or that or to do this or that?

Self-determination theory then speaks of introjected behaviour with a low degree of self-determination. For example, you may be familiar with introjected, internal representations of external persons from psychology: the inner parent(s), the inner critic, and so on. Self-determination theory emphasises how important it is to act in a self-reflective matter: Is this really what I want? Are these really my values and goals? What do I really enjoy? Asking oneself these questions can lead to behaviours that actually are autonomous and self-determined.

Children, in particular, still frequently exhibit autonomous motivation through intrinsically motivated behaviours. Over the course of their socialisation, this type of motivation becomes less important—but it can be supplemented by behaviours that reflect personal goals and interests. Even so, SDT advises caution, here: many people have lost contact with their own selves and true needs and instead orient their actions toward so-called extrinsic goals—those that are not directly associated with the satisfaction of basic psychological needs. For this reason, SDT also distinguishes between an individual’s “personality” and their “Self”.

Perhaps you’ve now become uncertain, and are thinking: Yes, but then how can I know whether my behaviour is self-determined? Here, the theory recommends mindfulness and self-reflection, because just what your true personal values, goals, and interests are is something that you know best.

What about the other two needs? Competence has to do not with your previously learned personal skills but rather with experiences where you succeeded in something, where you achieved intended effects, and where the tasks at hand matched your personal level of ability. This means that in order to satisfy the need for competence, it is necessary to have opportunities to engage in personal development and experience success.

Satisfying one’s need for relatedness, finally, is the opposite of experiencing social alienation and emotionally unsatisfying relationships. If you long for “authentic” emotional relationships where you can be your true self, where you are supported and experience care from others, then you’re in contact with the basic human need for relatedness—a need that cannot be met with superficial contacts or relationships that are purely transactional.

In keeping with Ryan & Deci (2017)—“[…] for we cannot conclude a treatise on self-determination by looking wholly to environments to improve the human condition”—

I have taken my master’s degree thesis as an opportunity to develop a programme intended to support participants in their efforts to have their basic psychological needs better fulfilled, even in environments that do not favour such fulfilment. In this programme, participants learn things including skills pertaining to self-reflection and mindfulness, are acquainted with interest-furthering strategies, and support each other in seeing to it that their basic psychological needs are met. The programme should thereby help improve the ability to perceive one’s own and others’ needs as well as open up new courses of action aimed at these needs’ satisfaction. In this way, my programme’s content can be included in and enrich music education settings and contexts in a multitude of ways. Alongside its use in inclusive music ensembles, it might also be employed in settings such as school classrooms, elementary music-making groups, and music and movement groups.

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