Category Archives: Interviews

Interview – Professor Bill Thompson

I received my BSc in psychology and mathematics from McGill University and my PhD from Queens University, Kingston in 1986 (supervisor Lola Cuddy). I am currently Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology, Macquarie University. I’m a Chief Investigator in the “Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders” which recently received $21 million dollars in funding by the Australian Research Council, and director of the Centre for Elite Performance, Expertise and Training at Macquarie University.

My 2009 book “Music, Thought and Feeling” (Oxford University Press) is a leading textbook on the psychology of music. I have completed terms as Editor of the journal Empirical Musicology Review, and President of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC). I’m currently Associate Editor for the journals Music Perception, Semiotica, and Empirical Musicology Review.

My research concerns auditory cognition, including topics such as emotional communication in music and speech, the use of facial expressions during emotional communication, and the effects of music listening on concurrent cognitive-motor activity.

In addition to my research and administrative roles, I teach a course at Macquarie University entitled “Music, Mind and Message” which examines music on perceptual, cognitive, neuroscientific, social, and semiotic levels. Until two years ago, I was a fanatical squash player (have calmed down since), and I enjoy improvising on piano. I’ve also composed and performed music for a number of films, radio plays, and stage plays.

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1)      What led you to want to study/work in music psychology?

It was partly a random set of decisions, but it does seem to balance my twin interests in music and the mind, along with my scientific and artistic sides. Music was always in the background when I was growing up – both parents played (different) Chopin waltzes every evening on the piano, and I also played regularly. The field allows me to investigate something that is personally very close to me.

2)      What are your current areas of focus/interest in music psychology?

The truth is I almost always feel that I’m at a crossroads. For many years I have enjoyed working on music and emotion, but recently I’ve been examining timing in individuals with expertise in movement-based skills such as music and sport. I’ve also recently become interested in the right hemisphere, and have a new grant to investigate whether melodic intonation therapy (MIT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can jointly recruit the right hemisphere (RH) to assist with impaired left hemisphere functions.

3)      What do you enjoy investigating the most?

I have no big preference but I recently discovered that I quite enjoy working in the area of exceptionality – whether with people with specific disorders such as amusia, or people who have acquired elite levels of skill, such as athletes, expert chess players, or musicians.

4)      Is there any area you would like to investigate in the future?

I have a nagging interest in how and why music has the capacity to interact with belief systems.

5)      What is your proudest career moment?

Seeing my 2009 book finally published after such an embarrassingly long time writing it.

6)      Who inspires you?

I read a lot of psychology and music texts but the truth is I seem to get most of my inspiration from novels by writers such as Colm Tóibín (The Master), Ian Mckewn (Atonement), and dozens of others. I also enjoy reading books about fields other than psychology and I get a lot of inspiration from powerful theatre, film, music performances, and dance.

7)      What is the best part of your job?

I appreciate the flexible working hours, the ability to travel to interesting places for conferences, and generally being able to follow my curiosity and get paid for it.

8)      What do you think might be a future, exciting challenge for music psychology?

Coming up with a general theory of music and the brain that accounts for all of its features and functions, or if that doesn’t work, hosting ICMPC on a Mediterranean cruise ship.

9)      What music do you like to listen to or play in your spare time?

I listen to baroque music, classical vocal music of most genres, various popular styles as they come and go and music from the 40s. I love playing piano and improvising on music from the 40’s. I also enjoy playing four-hand (classical and romantic) piano.

10)  Do you have any advice for future, budding music psychologists?

My advice is to define yourself by addressing a very specific and important research question, and avoid spreading yourself too thinly across several research topics. Affiliate yourself with the best researchers in the world: most of them are generous and willing to help out young researchers.

Interview – Stephanie Pitts

Dr Stephanie Pitts

Stephanie Pitts studied music at the University of York, before moving to Sheffield to undertake a PhD on the history of music education.  She also completed a PGCE with the Open University, and after a few years teaching music at a school in Derbyshire she began a lectureship at Sheffield, where she is now a Reader. 

Stephanie has research interests in music education and the social psychology of music, and was co-editor of the British Journal of Music Education from 2002-7.  Recent research recent projects include investigations of jazz, classical and first-time concert attenders, and a study of musical life histories which looked at the long-term impact of music education for adults in the UK and Italy.  She completed an MEd for university lecturers in 2003, and until recently held a teaching development role in the arts faculty at Sheffield, stepping down from this post to become acting head of the music department in 2011-12. In her ever-diminishing spare time, Stephanie remains active as a pianist and cellist, and enjoys hill walking, gardening and cooking for friends.

1) When and how did you first find out about music psychology?

I drifted into music psychology from music education, having been inspired in the latter discipline by Professor John Paynter while I was an undergraduate music student at York.  When I arrived at Sheffield as a PhD student, there was a lively music psychology research culture, and I began to see the connections between my work and the social and developmental aspects of music psychology.

2) What led you to want to study/work in music psychology?

Again, I’m not sure that was a definite plan and I still see myself as a lecturer and researcher who works in music, with strong interests in education and psychology.  I was inspired by colleagues including Eric Clarke and Nikki Dibben to explore the psychological aspects of music education, and this interest spread to include the exploration of musical participation beyond school, and of the social and personal engagement with music in everyday life.  Writing our jointly-authored book, Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben & Pitts, 2010), brought these shared interests together in a really stimulating way (even if it did take us about nine years to finish the book!).

3) What are your current areas of focus and how did you come to work in these areas?

I’m fascinated by how and why people engage with music as performers and listeners, and have generally found qualitative methods to be most illuminating for that kind of investigation.  I’ve particularly enjoyed using slightly quirky mixed methods: asking school students to keep audio diaries, for instance, can reveal much more than would be possible in an interview.  My work on musical participation (Valuing Musical Participation, 2005) was an attempt to move away from music education into wider musical contexts, but I soon found that the adult musicians I spoke to referred back to their teachers, to their own children’s instrumental learning and so on, which led me on to investigate musical life histories in more depth.  Someone commented recently that my research all looks very planned and connected, but it certainly hasn’t felt like that as it’s happened!

4) What is your proudest career moment?

Seeing my first publications in print was very exciting – that’s become more ‘normal’ as time’s gone on, and I have to remind myself to still feel proud of those achievements, instead of just relieved that I’ve got past another deadline!  I’ve felt enormously proud of all my completing PhD students too, and very privileged to have learnt so much from them as they developed their ideas and research skills.

5) What is your favourite music psychology text ?

With my current research interest in musical life histories, I’ve recently enjoyed reading ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ by Amy Chua.  Her views on parental support for musical learning need taking with an enormous pinch of salt, but certainly made me think again about the costs and benefits of a musical childhood.  To balance that very parent-centred view of musical engagement, I’d then need to come back to Patricia Shehan Campbell’s lovely book ‘Songs in Their Heads’, which is a very sensitive, ethnographic study of the music that children encounter in their daily life – another book that makes you think again about the purpose and place of music in schools and beyond.

6) What do you think might be a future, exciting challenge for music psychology?

With all the current debate on the value of the arts, both in education and wider society, music psychology could have a central role to play in demonstrating why music matters and should be much better supported in schools and universities.

7) What music do you like to listen to in your spare time?

That depends so much on mood and context: I probably listen most while driving, and music for long journeys might be the Divine Comedy’s ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ album, or something by Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, Morrissey, The Holmes Brothers – anything with good words and an interesting musical texture that I can sing along to.  I’d rather hear classical music live and even better is to be playing it – I rehearse and perform regularly with a trumpeter, and intermittently play piano trios and string quartets with friends, which is always very absorbing and energising.