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.


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.