Interview – Stefan Koelsch

When I was in Denmark recently I had the fortune to run into Stefan Koelsch.   On your behalf, dear reader, I approached Stefan in the coffee break and asked him if he would be kind enough to do an interview for my blog. He said yes immediately, despite his hugely busy schedule. So here you are!

Professor Stefan Koelsch is a leading academics in the field of music and neuroscience. Here you can read his latest article, a really useful review of neural music perception research. He has a fantastic website where you can access many of his experimental stimuli and papers for free. He has worked in the fields of music and emotion, music and language processing, music therapy, and cognition and action. He has pioneered many of the now standard ERP (EEG) paradigms in music psychology. On top of this, I can report from the recent Music and Neurosciences meeting that he is great fun at a Caleigh! Here is his interview followed by a summary of his CV. Huge thanks to Stefan.   


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

— During an internship at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience (around 1997/8, I believe), I was working with psycholinguists (mainly Thomas Gunter, but also Angela Friederici), and thought that most of the language experiments could be done in an analogous way with music too. When I told Tom Gunter this, he told me to go ahead and come up with stimuli. During those experiments I went through the literature, Carol Krumhansl’s work, Jamshed Bharucha’s work, and the (very) few ERP studies that had been published back then, such as those by Mireille Besson.

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

— How the human mind works, and how this is implemented in the brain. Music psychology is the ideal tool for this, because rather than being a specialized discipline (a misconception that some have about MP), MP is a meta-domain, due to music being a medium that potentially engages a large range of cognitive, affective, and social processes.

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

— related to the last answer, I try to cover the investigation of a range of cognitive, affective, and social processes, such as syntax processing, processing of meaning, emotion, working memory, auditory sensory memory, social cognition, development, music therapy, effects of musical training, etc.

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

— The therapeutic effects of music, particularly of music making. I hope that I can free more resources in the future to investigate this further.

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

— Many different kinds of music, depending on my mood, or on how I would like to influence my mood. I prefer music that elevates my mood, when I need to focus my thoughts I love to listen to Bach, I also have particular preferences for Dvorak, Louis Armstrong, Elvis, and many others… I also like to play Bach and Dvorak, and wished that I could improvise better to play more Jazz.

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

— My conviction is that music psychology is not a niche in the spectrum of psychological research, but on the contrary: music psychology covers most aspects of psychology (perception, learning, sensory memory, working memory, long-term memory, multisensory integration, social cognition, action, emotion, etc.). That is, in my view music psychology, and the neuroscience of music, is the via regia to understand human cognition, emotion, and their underlying brain mechanisms. Therefore, I recommend to all students to study different aspects of psychology, ideally also other disciplines, and then to connect the dots.

Stefan Koelsch CV

1994        Masters of Arts in Instrumental and Vocal Music,UniversityofMusicand Arts,Bermen,Germany(major; Violin)

1998              Masters of Science in Psychology, University of Leipzig  (Erich Schöger’s lab.), Germany (“Influences of experience on automatic neural mechanisms: Do musicians have superior pre-attentive auditory processing?”)

2000          Masters of Science in Sociology, University of Leipzig, Germany (“Der soziale Umgang mit Fähigkeit – Die geschlossene Gesellschaft und ihre Freunde”) 

2000            Ph.D. in Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience (Angela Friederici’s lab.) / University of Leipzig, Germany (“Brain and Music: A contribution to the investigation of central auditory processing with a new electrophysiological approach”)

2001 – 2002   Postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School (Gottfried Schlaug’s Lab.) , Boston, USA

 2003 – 2008  Leader of the Max-Planck Independent Junior Research Group    “Neurocognition of Music”, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Leipzig Germany

 2004         Habilitation in Psychology, University of Leipzig, Germany (“Spatial and temporal aspects of processing musical syntax and semantics”)

 2006 – 2010    RCUK fellowship (senior researcher) at the University of Sussex, UK 

 Since 2010    Professor for Music Psychology, Cluster of Excellence “Languages   of Emotion” & Dept. of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Comments Off on Interview – Stefan Koelsch