For Parents

How to Foster Intrinsic Motivation

By Rebecca Carlson
How to foster intrinsic motivation.

What is intrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation is the desire to engage in a task for its own sake, without any external rewards. This is the kind of motivation that we want to foster in young piano students. A piano student who plays and practices the piano because they want to will spend more time and effort on learning than a piano student who is only at the piano to earn a privilege or a treat. While many young piano students start out being motivated by external rewards from their parents, the goal is to quickly get them excited about making music simply for the sake of making music. 

How do we promote intrinsic motivation? First, we need to recognize that intrinsic motivation is fueled by three innate human needs: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Then, we help our young students experience the fulfillment of these needs as they learn piano.

Intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory

Self-determination theory explains that intrinsic motivation is fueled by fulfillment of some basic, innate human needs: 

  • Competence: The need to feel SKILLED and capable in one’s actions.
  • Relatedness: The need to feel CONNECTED with others.
  • Autonomy: The need to feel in control of one’s actions and decisions.

While you can’t give someone else intrinsic motivation to do something, you can help them experience the fulfillment of these needs as they engage in the positive activities that you want to encourage. This will increase the chances that they’ll “catch on” to the intrinsic motivation that will propel them to move forward on their own.

Examples of intrinsic motivation

Let’s take the example of learning to ride a bicycle. Many children want to learn to ride a bicycle. No one has to bribe them or pay them to do it. It’s easy to see how riding a bicycle helps fulfill the basic needs that make up intrinsic motivation. 

  • Competence – Riding a bicycle demonstrates that a child is competent. They’re showing themselves that they have the maturity and skill to operate a bicycle, and that makes them feel good. 
  • Relatedness – A child may see their friends riding bicycles and want to join in the fun. Being able to ride a bicycle gives them a sense of connection with others. 
  • Autonomy – Riding a bicycle gives a child a new sense of autonomy in the freedom to get where they want to go.  

If you take a look at games, hobbies, sports, and other activities that people enjoy doing simply for their own sake, you’ll usually see these principles of intrinsic motivation in action.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from outside. It can be a fear of punishment, or seeking for a reward. When you want someone else to do something, offering them some extrinsic motivation can be very effective. For example, if you want someone to mow your lawn, you can offer to pay them to do it. The desire for money will motivate them to do the task. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with extrinsic motivation, but it does have some drawbacks. One of the drawbacks of extrinsic motivation is that once the extrinsic motivation to do something is removed, there is no longer a reason to do it. The reward has to be consistently offered or the desired behavior will stop. 

Because intrinsic motivation comes from inside of a person, it motivates them no matter what else is going on outside of them. They find that doing something is its own reward, and so they want to continue doing it without any outside encouragement.

Intrinsic motivation and piano studies

While extrinsic rewards such as treats, extra screen time, or even praise from parents are a good way to motivate children to practice the piano in the early stages, these rewards won’t always be enough. A piano student who becomes intrinsically motivated will learn faster and better than one who is constantly needing to be extrinsically rewarded for their efforts. Here’s why:

  • Sustained practice: learning the piano takes time and patience. There is nothing like intrinsic motivation to fuel consistent practice. If a student is motivated by their own interest and love for music, they’re more likely to stick with practicing over the long term.
  • Deep learning: Students who are intrinsically motivated engage more deeply with learning. They’ll explore, experiment, and seek to understand music simply because they enjoy it.
  • Quality of Performance: When students play the piano because they love to, they’re more likely to put emotion and personal expression into their music. They’ll also work extra hard to be able to play without mistakes simply because they enjoy the way it sounds when they play the song correctly.
  • Resilience: Intrinsic motivation can help students be resilient in the face of challenges or setbacks. If they’re motivated by love for the piano, they’ll see difficult pieces as exciting challenges rather than frustrating obstacles.
  • Long-term commitment: Piano students who are intrinsically motivated tend to continue playing and improving even after formal lessons end. This can lead to a lifetime of music learning and enjoyment.
  • Personal satisfaction: Ultimately, music is a form of self-expression and a source of personal satisfaction. When motivated by their own love for music, students find piano playing to be joyful and rewarding.

Developing intrinsic motivation in the young piano student

It’s clear that intrinsic motivation is the goal, but how do we encourage it? It isn’t something that can be forced. It has to come from inside. 

One way to help a young piano student to develop their own intrinsic motivation is to show them that playing the piano can fulfill those basic needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.


It’s very important for young children to experience competence as they begin their piano studies. Start with simple songs they can learn without too much difficulty. Celebrate every success. Here are some more tips to foster a feeling of competence:

  • GAMES – Playing games to practice skills can help a child feel more competent so long as the game isn’t too difficult. Aim for activities that a child can do successfully 80%-90% of the time. 
  • CONSISTENCY – Regular practice allows for more opportunities to understand and grasp piano skills. Daily practice sessions reinforce neural pathways associated with that skill, making it easier and more automatic to perform over time. Consistency leads to success!
  • REVIEW – Encourage your young piano student to review songs they have already learned. One great way to do this is with the Hoffman Academy practice tracks. Ending a piano practice session by playing along with the previous unit’s practice tracks is a fun way for a piano student to review their songs and enjoy making music.


While it’s fun to play music for yourself, it’s even more rewarding to play music for an appreciative audience! Give your young piano student opportunities to delight others with their piano playing.

  • SHOW GENUINE APPRECIATION – Be sure to let them know that you enjoy hearing them play the piano. Take time to listen and make positive comments. Talk about the songs they’re learning and ask them which ones they like best.
  • PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITIES – Look for opportunities, such as school talent shows, family gatherings, or other events where your child can play the piano for a larger audience. Or, you can make an event of your own! Get everything you need to put on your own piano party here.
  • EXPOSE THEM TO A COMMUNITY OF MUSIC MAKERS – Let your young piano student see what’s possible. Take them to a piano performance in your area. If that’s not possible, find piano performance videos on YouTube to share with them. Another great way to be part of a community of music makers is to join the Hoffman Academy Facebook Group or follow us on Instagram. See videos posted by other students that will inspire and encourage, and share some of your own!
  • MAKE MUSIC TOGETHER – Another great way to experience connectedness as a piano player is to make music with another person. Learn and play a simple piano duet with your young musician, or just sit down and improvise together. Sing along while they play. If you play a different instrument of your own, play along with them as they practice. Making music with others is one of the most fun parts of being a musician!


It’s important to give your young piano student some choices as they begin their piano studies. They should feel that they have some control over their practice time and what they’re learning. While the core curriculum is set out for them, they should be able to pick some songs to learn that they like. They can also choose what order to do their practice tasks in, and select from a variety of games and activities.

  • PRACTICE TIME – While you don’t want to give your child a choice of whether or not to practice the piano, there are many choices you can give them about how to use that practice time. They could choose from a number of piano practice games to help keep them focused and motivated, or they could choose which songs they’ve already learned that they’d like to review that day.
  • HOW MANY REPETITIONS – When practicing a difficult section of a song, we recommend that students play it between 3 and 5 times without making a mistake before they move on. Let your piano student choose the number, so long as it’s at least three. They can even challenge themself to play the section as many as ten times if they want to. 
  • POPULAR SONG TUTORIALS – A great way to help your child be self-directed in their music studies is to give them an opportunity to choose a song to learn. Have them take a look at our Hoffman Academy Popular Song Tutorials and pick out a song that interests them. The songs range in difficulty from super easy to early intermediate. As your child progresses, they will eventually be able to learn any song they want using sheet music or simply learning by ear. Our goal is to create independent musicians that choose to learn music they love simply for the enjoyment of being able to play it.

By fostering intrinsic motivation in a young piano student, you’re guiding them to develop a love for music making that can carry them through their piano studies and bring them joy throughout their life.

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