Category Archives: Book Reviews

How to be a (music) science writer

Hello, Dear Reader

I had an email today from a former student, Suzie. She said:

I am emailing to ask your advice on getting into science writing as I would like to start communicating some of the ideas and research findings involved in the field of music psychology to a wider audience“.

By Derek Bruff
By Derek Bruff

Great! The more people writing about music and science, the better. Of course my first piece of advice is try a blog – I have found my blog to be a fun and rewarding activity these past 3.5 years (yes Dear Reader, it has been that long).

Writing a blog gives invaluable experience in writing for a wider audience. Blog writing has helped me to find my voice, a mode of expression that is more akin to the way I wanted to write about science compared to the  highly stylized way that we must adopt when writing a formal science report or journal papers.

Don’t get me wrong, I have come to enjoy writing papers over the years. I like communicating with colleagues and sharing my ideas and findings. I am keen to contribute to the development of my field in any way possible. I am aware however, that virtually none of my papers will ever be read by the public. Even if they were keen to read the papers they will find that most of them are behind journal pay walls.

So I can completely understand Suzie’s desire to communicate more directly with the public about new findings in (music) science research. After all, it is the public who fund the majority of science research in UK universities so they deserve to know what they are getting for their money.

Quill_(PSF)So, my step one is to try a blog. Even if this is just a temporary step (don’t worry dear reader, I am not going anywhere) it will help you to practise your writing style and to develop a recognized voice in your field. If you are not going to invest in going down the road of traditional journalist training (i.e. a degree) then you would be wise to put in the effort to develop your skills and your name in this way. Your name in particular is something you need to get out there.

 

I can also advocate taking time to work as an intern, in magazines or newspapers (online or print). Write a piece and send it to editors who manage publications that have a previous history of interest in music science. Make is SHORT – these people get lots of submissions and are hugely busy so will not read anything long winded. And make it punchy – give something to attract their eye.

You could also learn a huge amount by interning in a science communication environment. A couple of years ago I took two weeks of my holiday to work at the Science Media Centre in London.  The SMC “provide support for scientists to engage with the media when their area hits the headlines, offering expertise of a team with over 10 years’ experience in science media relations”.

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As an intern at the SMC I got first hand experience of how science is covered in the media.

I got to meet all the major science correspondents, to chat to them and see how they work (I could not speak to Alok Jha though – serious hero worship meets failure to speak moment). I saw the preparation and action of a press conferences, studied press releases being prepared, and witnessed how press relations experts trained scientists to best communicate their findings. The experience was brilliant.

Paperback writerIn the end, I believe you need experience. It takes time and effort to learn how the world of science communication works and to find your voice within its rapidly developing landscape. I am still early in my journey even after 3 years – as a full time researcher it is hard to find the time to devote to writing. Having said that I have spent all my weekends for the past year writing my first book – so if you love writing in this style then it is a pleasure that you will be drawn to again and again!

So my best advice is to get started. Now. Today. Find a (music) science topic or controversy that really interests you and write 500 words about it for the public. See what emerges and send it to some trusted friends/colleagues for feedback. Listen to their comments, without taking them personally. Evaluate how you feel honestly and seriously; are you enjoying this experience? Keep writing and then when you feel you have a collection of good pieces, send them out there to the right forums for consideration.

I wish all budding (music) science writers the very best. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

 

Music and Mind in Everyday Life: A review

I have always thought that the test of a good book is whether you could hear the author in your head. When I am really absorbed in a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, I can hear the different characters voices and I have a clear picture of them speaking in my head. And although it might sound odd to some, I always find it easier to read an academic book if I can picture the author speaking. Typically I imagine a lecture-style situation, perhaps in a beautiful ornate lecture hall in one of the older European universities, where I sit in the audience and listen to the words of wisdom.

So when I picked up ‘Music and Mind in Everyday Life’ by Eric Clarke, Nicola Dibben and Stephanie Pitts (published by Oxford University Press) I had both high hopes but also a little trepidation. I have had the pleasure of being taught by all of these academics in the past so I was confident that I would have no trouble hearing their voices and getting engaged with the material. My worry stemmed from the fact that the book was written by all three of them – would I still ‘hear’ their voices? Or would the content sound like an over-edited version of the three of them?

Happily, their voices come through loud and clear. The book is cleverly structured to tap into the authors’ expertise while the overall f argument structure feels like a confident melding of the minds – as if the authors take turns being ‘expert’ and the others comment and critique along the way, in the best traditional of academic debate.

As for how the book is structured (I could be wrong of course!), first I heard Eric talking about ‘Making Music’, investigating the different psychological processes that are involved in the multitude of manifestations that make up modern musical activities. This first section discussed motivation to make music (personal and social), the development of different skills, and the intricacies of expressive performance, musical communication and improvisation/composition. Then I heard Nikki in the second section discussing ‘Using Music’, debating what we are really ‘doing’ when we listen to music: The differences between focused and background listening, and the ideas behind listening to music to enhance life. In the final section Stephanie presented ideas about lifelong musical development;  the acquisition of a musical identity, the nature of learning music both in the classroom and in instrumental lessons, and a couple of all too brief but interesting sections on topics such as transferable skills and age-related  music loss.

The authors set themselves an ambitious target with the framework of this book. It covers a lot of ground. But the way in which the authors encompass the topics is, to my mind, very unique in the world of music psychology literature. Reading the chapters took me back to my days under their tutelage at Sheffield University in the UK.  Whatever the topic, the authors move seamlessly between relevant findings from the worlds of musicology, music psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, sociology and  anthropology.

The mixture may seem light at times, as the authors have opted to present a broad range of concepts over in-depth analysis of any one study in particular. But this book is more about ideas than exhaustive analysis. Along with this theme, references are kept to footnotes. There are also wonderful little asides, stories that help to illustrate points from a real life perspective. My personal favourite is little Ralph (p. 142)

I became very keen on the conversational tone of this book as I read. In the end, instead of picturing myself in a lecture hall I imagined myself sitting with Eric over coffee, talking to Nikki in the park or listening to Stephanie as I travelled home after work on the bus. They presented me with challenges to my ideas about music psychology. Together in my mind we debated the limits of academic study and music psychology as a discipline, rejoiced in important old and new discoveries, and dreamt up the experiments of the future.

This book got me thinking about the subject that drives my mind every day. I enjoyed it very much.

See here for an interview with the authors