Category Archives: Music Psychology

PhD in Music Psychology: Viva

Hello Dear Reader

My Swiss colleagues - Elena is left front
My Swiss colleagues – Elena is left front

This week I enjoyed a phone call with a much-missed colleague Elena, from Switzerland. You can see my Swiss colleagues in this photo of my leaving party.

I am sure she won’t mind if I talk about the fact that Elena just handed in her PhD, which I had the pleasure of helping to supervise when I lived in Lucerne last year.

Elena’s PhD is entitled ‘Evaluating recorded performance: An investigation of music criticism through Gramophone reviews of Beethoven piano sonata recordings’.

It is a fascinating study of music critique; how style and form has changed over nearly 100 years of written text. She breaks down the different components of review, such the performance itself as well as the work and the recording, and gives each a thorough and enlightening examination. As you can tell, I enjoyed working with her on this thesis.

Our conversation this week focused on the final hurdle of any PhD – the viva. I thought that I would write down my thoughts about our conversation for you, Dear Reader, in case you or anyone you know might one day be called upon to take part in such an exam.

Here is my description of viva, its purpose and form, and how I recommended Elena to prepare for her big day. My advice refers to the PhD viva as it stands in the UK, where the viva is an exam and not a public formality.

What is a viva?

The viva is short for ‘viva voce’, a Latin phrase meaning “with living voice”. All music exams used to have a viva voce component, which was the sung response section of the test.

Nowadays ‘viva’ is used most often to refer to a PhD oral examination, which takes places once a written thesis has been submitted and read by examiners.

The viva is a meeting between the examination panel and the candidate. The panel consists of at least two examiners where at least one of them is an ‘external’ examiner, someone from a different institution to the candidate.

Some Universities also employ an internal examiner, typically a person in a similar but not the same field as the candidate. My internal examiner was an expert in auditory perception, for example. Finally, some universities employ an impartial observer or record the viva.

It should be up to the candidate whether their PhD supervisor/s attends the viva. As far as I know no UK institution makes supervisors attend, but good supervisors should offer.
champagneIn some cases a candidate may feel that their supervisor’s presence offers reassurance, though they will not say anything. Most people would prefer their supervisor was not present. Perhaps they feel their supervisor might make them nervous? That is fine: and completely up to the candidate. No PhD supervisor will take offence if the candidate would prefer they were not there. I would head out to buy champagne instead :-)

Why would you record a viva?!

I want to address this question, as some candidates get anxious at the idea of an independent observer taking notes or an audio/ video recording being taken of the viva. In some universities, like mine (University of York, UK), an audio recording was actually compulsory.

The reason is straightforward – it is for the good of the candidate. There are very, very rare cases where a candidate feels they were mistreated by their examiners. This could include inappropriate questioning or behavior that amounts to bullying – now, please be reassumed that this is NOT AT ALL common. But mean people exist in all walks of life so we must legislate for them.

In the highly unlikely event that something like this happens then an unbiased recording of the event will allow an independent panel to decide whether the viva was conducted in an appropriate and professional manner by the academics. It ensures that the candidate gets the treatment, respect, and good viva experience that they deserve after all their hard work.

A viva recording should never be used to change the decision of the panel in any other circumstances. The decision stands as final on the day, when it is made by the examiners and communicated to the candidate.

What is the purpose of the viva?

 1) Ensure that the candidate wrote the thesis

No cheating!
No cheating!

If a candidate wrote the thesis then they have nothing to worry about – the way they speak about their work, it will quickly become obvious to the examiners that this is their ‘baby’.

If a candidate didn’t write it then…bad candidate, out you go. It is possible to buy a PhD thesis so examiners have to make sure that this is not the case.


2) Assess whether the candidate is able to defend their work

One of the jobs of a future academic will be to defend their work – in papers, during a poster presentation, after a talk, or even in conversation with colleagues. The PhD viva is no different, the examiners want to hear that the candidate is able to think critically about their work and argue as to why they adopted certain method or interpretations.

Again, this is nothing to worry about. A candidate will have ‘defended’ their ideas 100s of times by the time they get to viva. But probably not to these examiners, so they need to hear it for themselves.

3) Explore the contribution to knowledge









The main point of a PhD is to make a contribution to knowledge. A candidate will likely be asked to name a few ways in which their thesis has made an impact – What are the new methods or findings? Are there challenges to previous ideas? Has the candidate provided a new dataset or protocol for future research?

I advise all my candidates and friends before viva to take a notebook and on the front page to list between 3-5 contributions to knowledge from the thesis. There is no problem with them reading these in the exam, there is no rule that says these ideas must spring from the top of their head. And having these contributions at the front of notes will give them confidence.

4) Clarify the thesis

This is the point that will take up most of the conversation. The examiners will have read the work but might be a unsure or unclear about a few points. They will ask for clarifications. This usually means the writing could be a bit clearer and this is something that can be fixed later in the revisions.

Another possibility is that the examiners will have some interesting ideas about how the work was done. This is the second reason to take a notebook. Scribble these ideas down. The viva is the most time any senior academics will sit down with a candidate and just talk about their ideas and work. They should take advantage. And remember that a candidate is well within their rights to ask the examiner to clarify their questions or points.

Preparation – do I read the thesis?

A supervisor will no doubt advise a candidate to re-read their thesis a couple of times before the viva. This was what I was told. And guess what? I did not open the thing between submission and viva – not once.

stressI handed in at the start of September and my viva was in December. In the meantime I moved to London and started a new job. I had little time for extra reading plus I had a stress reaction every time I went near my thesis. The point of all this is not to tell a candidate what to do but to tell you that I got through it without reading my thesis in its entirety after submission.

If a candidate feels that they need to then they should read it. But one piece of advice in this case – do not go looking for mistakes. A candidate will not get extra marks for pointing these out in the viva. Just read for clarification and memory, if the need arises.

In my experience, unless there is a long time gap, then most candidates at viva know their thesis inside out.

A better use of time, for me, was a mock viva run by my supervisor. He asked me a few questions about the thesis contents and how they came about, including asking me to summarize the main findings in under 2 minutes. This was a helpful exercise for me and gave me a lot of confidence going into my viva.

How long does it take?

Everyone told me a viva took at least 2-3 hours. You only seem to hear horror stories of 5-6 hours or more running up to the exam. So when my viva took 90 minutes I walked out thinking ‘was that it?!’

No one can tell you how long a viva will be. Just remember that a candidate can ask for a break at any time, within reason (i.e. not every 5 minutes…)

What are the possible outcomes?

Failure is rare. And in most cases of failure, the thesis was a fail to start with and the viva was conducted to see if there was anyway to salvage the work. Probably around 2-5% of vivas end up this way in the UK at present.

75% – 80% of candidates, the vast majority, come out with a list of minor written corrections and lots of ideas of how to develop the work in the future. This was my experience. My written corrections were completed one chilly December morning, and approved in time for Christmas.

Around 10-15% of candidates get what we call major corrections, where the examiners feel that more substantial writing, some re-analysis or additional investigation must take place. Usually the candidate is given a timetable, around 6 months, to complete this work, after which time they may or may not have another viva.

Finally 2-5% are told that their PhD is perfect and is to be accepted as it is at the end of the viva. I knew someone who passed this way once. And yes, he was a clever sod.

Best advice

  • Know your rights – know what you can ask for during the viva: a recording, clarifications, a break, whatever you need. Just speak up.
  • Take a notebook. Not a computer unless you can’t live without a screen; who needs the stress of worrying about the thing dying on you? An old-fashioned pen and paper is great to note down any interesting points or to sketch out an idea for your examiners – sometimes visuals help.
  • Take your thesis. If the examiner refers to p.67, third paragraph then ask for time to read it then and there before answering. No one expects you to know the thing by heart.
  • Take your favourite drink – sensible drink, I mean. Something to soothe you and refresh your throat, as you will be talking for a while.
  • Ask for a mock viva, or at least discuss the main findings and contributions of the thesis in advance.
  • Do not try and guess what the examiners will ask – I came up with at least 3 ‘mistakes’ I was sure would come up and worried about them for at least a week beforehand. None of them were ever brought up.
  • I would say to relax but this is obvious. What is undeniable is that the vast majority of people who have been through a viva will tell you they worried far more than was necessary and that in reality, they enjoyed this extended conversation about themselves and their work with colleagues.
  • Your examiners are interested in you and your work – that is why they agreed to take on the task of reading your thesis and attending the viva. So seek their advice and ideas, as well as listen to their comments. Some people go on to collaborate with their examiners on the basis of viva conversations.

That is a lot of blog, isn’t it, Dear Reader? I hope that you have found some useful advice to take or pass on to others.

I know that Elena will be absolutely fine at her viva soon. I also know she will worry, so if you are reading this Elena then please breathe and remember what I told you – you and your thesis are brilliant so just go in there and enjoy talking about yourself for a couple of hours :-)


Those who follow crocodiles – is there more to pitch than high and low?

Hello Dear Reader,

This is likely to be the last blog I write before Music and Neurosciences V, for me the first big music psychology conference of the year. This conference is due to take place in Dijon from 29th May to 1st June. This meeting will focus on “Cognitive Stimulation and Rehabilitation”.  As usual I will be doing my best to report on everything I see there for you.

256687_10100391435178173_1745065238_oBetween now and then I have some time off to spend with my lovely little (at least in age) brother Anthony. I have missed my family very much during the last 8 months in Switzerland. Time away in another country is a good way to focus the mind on what is important in life. I can’t wait to see Anthony and to show him where I have been hiding since September!

In this blog I would like to do something a little different. Rather than present new research I will re-visit one of my favourite papers from the past few years. It undoubtedly has the best title of any music psychology paper…

Beethoven’s last piano sonata and those who follow crocodiles: Cross-domain mappings of auditory pitch in a musical context’ by Zohar Eitan and Renee Timmers. This classic paper presents four tests that explore how we understand musical pitch beyond the sound itself – how we conceive of pitch in our minds.

These four studies reveal some consistency  in the way that we all seem to think about pitch in non-musical ways but also some surprising results that hint at complex and diverse cross-domain pitch mappings.

Cross-domain mappings for pitch rely heavily on metaphor, a type of analogy. Think about it, how would you describe the relationship between two notes to someone who was unable to hear them?

The classic Western culture mapping is “high” vs.”low” But the high/low pitch metaphor is far from universal. Higher pitch has also been associated with the adjectives small, bright, fast and active, while lower pitch has been matched to their opposites.

Crocodylus_acutus_mexico_02-edit1Even more interesting are metaphors observed outside modern Western culture. Ancient Greek theory refers to “sharp” and “heavy”.  The Bashi people of Central America talk of “weak” and “strong”. The Suya people of the Amazon basin use the terms “young” and “old”. And, the inspiration for the paper, the Shona mbira from Zimbabwe include “crocodiles” (low pitch) and “those who follow crocodiles” (high pitch).

The sheer variety of these metaphors suggest that they are learned from within our cultures. However, it may be the case that some metaphors consistently underlie our experience of pitch: Metaphors that perhaps relate to bodily experiences or our physical environment.

up-and-downThe verticality metaphor is no doubt important. That the up-down relationship is core to a much larger metaphorical map – up is more, down is less: up is good, down is bad (our vocalisations and animal sounds, for example)…and so on.

However, another possibility is an intensity metaphor, relating to ideas of tension, brightness and pace.

So, are there latent  metaphors for pitch that have the potential to affect how we think about music? Here is where our study comes in.

Test 1 – Do people consistently match metaphors?

Sixty three participants were presented with 29 antonym pairs (high – low, light – heavy, sparse – dense)  and asked which word was a better metaphor for high pitch. They then marked on a scale of 1-5 how good the metaphor was for pitch. The authors then re-randomised the list and asked the participants to say which word was better for low pitch.

The average level of agreement reached .86, reasonably high. Best agreement was found for alert-sleepy (1.0), thin-thick (.98) and sharp-heavy (.98). Poorest agreements were for fool-wise (.51), pleasant-unpleasant (.53) and little-much (.57).

Musical expertise and pitch direction discrimination ability had no effect on the outcome.

Overall, the authors reported a strong consensus over many diverse metaphors for pitch, suggesting there exists a ‘thick web of cross-domain relationships’.

Test 2 – Do people use these metaphors when they hear real pitches?

Beethoven_2The next step was to test out the metaphors using real music. The authors chose Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111 – the second movement of which never fails to tug at my heart. Sixty three participants heard two sections of the sonata (37-40sec) with a similar structure but a different pitch register (high/low). Participants had to rate 35 antonyms on a scale of 1-5 as to how appropriate they were for the musical sections.

The antonyms with the most significant differences between the ratings for each word in the pair (indicating a clear preference) included thin-thick, light-dark, sharp-heavy, sharp-blunt, feminine-masculine.

No significant difference was found for pairings like fool-wise, right-left, active-passive or cold-hot.

Tests 1 and 2 suggest that listeners can apply diverse pitch metaphors consistently  in both simple (abstract) and complex (real music) forms.  The data were combined and factor analysed to reveal key dimensions for the consistent metaphor ratings:

1) Potency (weak-strong) 2) Valence (good-bad) and 3) Activity (alert-sleepy).

dogsThere was also a fourth, largest factor which contained the most agreed upon metaphors. All were experientially related to pitch – not cultural conventions but physically relatable. For example, for the most part objects or animals that make higher pitches are thin, sharp, feminine,light smooth and small;  conversely, low pitches are made when things are thick, blunt, masculine, heavy, rough, and large.

The exception in this large final factor was a metaphor for  visual ‘lightness’ (light-dark). This doesn’t correspond to anything in nature. The authors suggest that this concept of Mass-lightness and pitch might represent a latent cognitive dimension of pitch.

Test 3 – Do pitch metaphors derive from spatial height?

As mentioned at the start, the verticality metaphor (high-low) is all pervasive in Western music culture both in terms of how we talk about and visually represent pitch.

Does this dimension represent the true embodiment of musical pitch? Do the connotations from Tests 1 and 2 emerge from this one core dimension?

The authors took the same antonyms from Test 1 and asked participants to apply them not to musical pitches this time, but spatial elevations.

CurvedSopranoAltoTenorSaxophoneComparisonAs in Test 1 the level of agreement as to which word in the pair represented which dimension (high-low) was good. However, several antonyms showed the opposite tendency. For example, in pitch small is high and large is low, whilst in elevation small is low and large is high.  The well-known mapping of “high is more” does not apply to pitch: high pitches are smaller, thinner, sharper and more little in quality.

It appears that metaphors for pitch stem from an interaction of learned and perhaps some more latent factors, rather than a direct mapping of any one dimension.

Test 4 – how does pitch map onto multiple candidate dimensions?

In the final test the authors tested the antonyms on multiple dimensions:

1) Intensity, 2) Mass or size, 3) Valence, 4) Spatial height, 5) Pitch height, 6) Quantity

In the analysis they looked at the correlations between agreements across all dimensions. Of most interest are the partial correlations between pitch height and the other dimensions. The data were summarised for both musicians and non-musicians.

The only notable correlations were for Intensity (positive) and Size (negative). The lowest correlations were for Valence and Quantity. Interestingly, non-musicians had a medium sized correlation with Height, but musicians did not.

So how do we think about pitch?

When added together these four studies blow apart the idea that our mental conception of pitch is a simple, one dimensional idea of verticality – high and low. Rather there is an intricate web of diverse sensory and cultural associations that interact with our concept (and perhaps even our perception) of pitch.

We use the physical: size, mass, visual lightness and texture

We use energy: force, intensity and momentum

We use social concepts: age, gender

We use cultural ideals: beauty, happiness

The high overall level of agreement across so many factors underlies the complex web of cross-domain mappings for pitch. These include embodied dimensions with some physical reality as well as more evaluative and cuturally learned conceptions.

We may favour ‘high’ and ‘low’ in Western cultures and languages but this single dimension hides a wealth of potential non-auditory representations of musical pitch that may exist or can be drawn instantly from our minds.

Including, and never forgetting, ‘crocodiles’ and ‘those who follow crocodiles’…



Paper: ‘ Beethoven’s last piano sonata and those who follow crocodiles: Cross-domain mappings of auditory pitch in a musical context’ by Zohar Eitan and Renee Timmers (2010) Cognition, 114, 405-422.