Interview – Lauren Stewart

Dr Lauren Stewart
Lauren Stewart completed her first degree in Physiological Sciences at the University of Oxford in 1997, followed by an MSc in Neuroscience (also at Oxford) the following year. Her first foray into music neuroscience was during her PhD at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, with Uta Frith and Vincent Walsh, where she conducted the first longitudinal functional imaging study of musical learning.

Following her PhD, she was awarded an ESRC one year postdoctoral fellowship and a Bogue travelling fellowship from UCL, which supported a visit to the laboratory of Gottfried Schlaug (Musicians brain laboratory, Harvard Medical School).  Following a two year postdoctoral position with Prof Tim Griffiths (Newcastle University and Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, UCL), she took up her first permanent position as lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, supported by an RCUK fellowship.  Once there, she founded the MSc in Music, Mind and Brain – a unique programme which investigates the cognitive and neural basis of musical behaviour. Her recent work on Congenital Amusia is funded by the ESRC and she is associate editor of the journal Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain. 



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

I got into the field of music and neuroscience (and hence started thinking about music cognition) quite by accident! I was starting my PhD with Uta Frith & Vince Walsh, at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and the goal was to investigate how the brain changes as it acquires literacy.  We were hoping to use fMRI for a longitudinal study, which meant finding a group of people who were functionally illiterate, at least at the start. Once I had exhausted all avenues of finding such people, I hit upon the idea of looking at musical literacy acquisition, since those who can’t read music really are a tabula rasa. At that point I thought I was merely using music as a model of a symbolic notational system, but this coincided with the emergence of a new field: the cognitive neuroscience of music, and I quickly became hooked.

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

As above – just fell into it!

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

At the moment, I’m investigating the disorder of congenital amusia: a disorder of development whereby some individuals’ brains aren’t wired in the right way with rather specific ramifications for music perception.  Individuals with this disorder don’t recognize tunes that would be familiar to the rest of us and, to them, one tune sounds much the same as another.  This isn’t due to problems with hearing or a general learning impairment, infact several high profile individuals are reported to have had amusia – Che Guevara, for instance, whose amusia was portrayed in the excellent film, the Motorcycle Diaries.  

These people set in sharp relief the extent to which the rest of us really are musical. The abilities we have to make sense of pitch, rhythm, timbre etc and process them all together in ways that please our emotional systems is remarkable, even though most people mistakenly think that being musical requires proficiency on a musical instrument. We’re using a range of methods, from auditory psychophysics, to neuroimaging, genetics, and good old-fashioned cognitive psychology, in an attempt to characterize the disorder at all possible levels. As well as shedding some useful light on the origins and nature of congenital amusia, we hope that this work will provide insights into how music is perceived and appreciated in the typical population.

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

I think music has powerful links to the reward system and I’m quite seduced by the idea that this can be exploited therapeutically in clinical populations. But I’m equally interested in more basic research questions, particularly when music provides a unique tool for investigating general principles of cognitive function.

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

I was pretty proud (but also very shocked!) to receive the Experimental Psychology Society Prize which recognizes early career research.  The society arranged for a symposium of my choice to be convened, featuring some of my heros from the field! My good friend Peter Vuust even shipped his double bass and keyboard over from Denmark, and played a fabulous jazz set at the drinks reception. 

6)       What is your favourite music psychology text?

I’m evangelical about David Huron’s Sweet Anticipation; it really changed the way I think about music and I can’t stop recommending it.

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

All sorts, but I recently got into Balkan brass gypsy music, after a holiday in Guca (Serbia) last summer.  Boban Markovic and his son, Marko, recently played an amazing concert at Koko’s in Camden, going head to head with Fanfare Ciocarlia – both bands claiming to be the biggest brass band in the Balkans. My ears were still ringing for a few days after!

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

If you can, get hold of a copy of the journal Psychomusicology, Volume 20: Music Psychology in Autobiography.  It will give you a historical perspective on the field, told in the words of its earliest pioneers: I challenge you not to be inspired!

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