Interview – Daniel Müllensiefen

Daniel Müllensiefen studied Systematic Musicology, Historic Musicology and Journalism at the universities of Hamburg (Germany) and Salamanca (Spain). After his Masters he spent six years in the German music industry working as a project- and business development manager for PhonoNet GmbH, a technical subsidiary of the German Association of the Music Industry. He finished his PhD in music psychology in 2004. He then came to London in 2006 where he was employed as a Research Fellow in Goldsmiths’ Computing department at Goldsmiths.

Since 2009 he is a lecturer in the Psychology department at Goldsmiths and co-director of the Master’s course in Music Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths. He is currently also working as Scientist in Residence with the London-based advertising agency DDB UK. He has also been active as a freelance expert witness in music law cases for numerous music publishers and producers, record labels, law firms, and in court.

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

I think that was during my last 2 years in secondary school where I took a music option that covered also a bit of acoustics and psychoacoustics in addition to all the music history and analysis stuff. Music psychology seemed like the most exotic discipline and actually not knowing much about it really fuelled my imagination.

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

It was this fascination that lead me to study systematic musicology at the University of Hamburg where music psychology was a big chunk of the syllabus. Although, I have to say that the lack of alternative music professions also had an influence. I’m a classical guitarist and apart from teaching guitar there aren’t really any big careers out there for us. So switching to the academic study of music was a comprise between the love for music and realising that I didn’t want to end up teaching music for the rest of my life to people who are less interested in it.

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

My PhD was on memory for melodies and followed the question whether we can explain why some melodies are better remembered than others. Almost ten years on I’m still chasing this question which clearly has a music-analytical angle to it and I’m using a computer to investigate large corpora of melodies these days..

During my time in Hamburg I was working as an expert witness for music publishers, law firms and in court, often giving an opinion on cases of plagiarism. From this very practical engagement with melodies I was inspired to think about algorithms that would measure the similarity between melodies in an objective way and help to decide tricky cases. Together with my friend and PhD colleague Klaus Frieler I developed a software tool called SIMILE that can do compute melodic similarity in many different ways. But once you have a great choice of similarity algorithms you need to compare them to how humans judge similarity. And this modelling of how listeners understand and judge similarity in music is one of the areas I find most fascinating at the moment.

4) What do you enjoy investigating the most? Is there any area you would like to investigate in the future?

Right now I’m very excited about a new strand of research concerning musicality, or more specifically, musical sophistication. Together with the BBC we are currently collecting data from more than a hundred thousand people who have taken a battery of musicality tests online together with an extensive self-report questionnaire asking about their musical habits. The sheer size of the project makes this is almost ‘big science’ and it is very rare to get a chance in music psychology to study such a large dataset.

I have two areas of research that I have been dreaming about for a long time and will probably never realise: a) The differential effect of different types of music on the growth of Marihuana plants and b) the conceptual similarities (differences) between musical and culinary taste. I hope no-one nicks these ideas and writes a grant proposal without involving me, now that they are in the open.

5) What is your proudest moment as a music psychologist?

Two occasions come to my mind. The first one was, when I heard that the post-doc grant proposal that I had written and submitted together with Geraint Wiggins to the British EPSRC had been accepted. I was a complete amateur at that time. I hadn’t been in academia at all and had worked on my PhD while working in the German music industry. This grant meant that I could go earn my living now with something that I really wanted to do.
The other situation was just recently at my 20-year high school reunion when a former classmate of mine told me that he had listened to a radio interview I had done with the New York radio station WNYC about my work on musical plagiarism and he now thought that I was a really big cheese in my field (chuckles).

6) Who inspires you most in the field of music psychology?

Probably W Jay Dowling with his persistence to really understand musical memory and John Sloboda who not only summarised and consolidated but also challenged the discourse in music psychology so well on several occasions.

7) What is your favourite music psychology text?

John Sloboda’s The Musical Mind is good (especially the introductory chapter). But the thing with music psychology texts is that only very few of them have some humour or suspense. There is really very little music psychology that I would choose for bedtime reading (unless I have to teach it in the morning).

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

To actually produce results that are reliable and stand the test of time. The field (in terms of the n umber of jobs) is quite small but attractive for many people. That creates a huge pressure to publish everything that seems original and vaguely publishable. But because most experiments are never replicated it and because of the publication bias by which almost only significant results get published in journals, it is really hard to know what findings in music psychology are really reliable and what effects will decline over time (see this interesting article in the New Yorker on the topic).

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

Sometimes it is new discoveries like certain country or latin music artists (e.g. Alison Krauss & Union Station, Eddie Palmieri – I used to hate that sort of music 15 years ago), sometimes it is my all-time heroes (Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Jimi Hendrix etc.) and sometimes it is just music from my teens and twens proving David Hargreaves right that people’s taste doesn’t change much after the age of 25.

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

Study the MSc in Music Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths – your gateway to the world of music perception and cognition. But hurry… sale will soon end (!)