Book Reviews

Music and Mind in Everyday Life: A review

I have always thought that the test of a good book is whether you could hear the author in your head. When I am really absorbed in a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, I can hear the different characters voices and I have a clear picture of them speaking in my head. And although it might sound odd to some, I always find it easier to read an academic book if I can picture the author speaking. Typically I imagine a lecture-style situation, perhaps in a beautiful ornate lecture hall in one of the older European universities, where I sit in the audience and listen to the words of wisdom.

So when I picked up ‘Music and Mind in Everyday Life’ by Eric Clarke, Nicola Dibben and Stephanie Pitts (published by Oxford University Press) I had both high hopes but also a little trepidation. I have had the pleasure of being taught by all of these academics in the past so I was confident that I would have no trouble hearing their voices and getting engaged with the material. My worry stemmed from the fact that the book was written by all three of them – would I still ‘hear’ their voices? Or would the content sound like an over-edited version of the three of them?

Happily, their voices come through loud and clear. The book is cleverly structured to tap into the authors’ expertise while the overall f argument structure feels like a confident melding of the minds – as if the authors take turns being ‘expert’ and the others comment and critique along the way, in the best traditional of academic debate.

As for how the book is structured (I could be wrong of course!), first I heard Eric talking about ‘Making Music’, investigating the different psychological processes that are involved in the multitude of manifestations that make up modern musical activities. This first section discussed motivation to make music (personal and social), the development of different skills, and the intricacies of expressive performance, musical communication and improvisation/composition. Then I heard Nikki in the second section discussing ‘Using Music’, debating what we are really ‘doing’ when we listen to music: The differences between focused and background listening, and the ideas behind listening to music to enhance life. In the final section Stephanie presented ideas about lifelong musical development;  the acquisition of a musical identity, the nature of learning music both in the classroom and in instrumental lessons, and a couple of all too brief but interesting sections on topics such as transferable skills and age-related  music loss.

The authors set themselves an ambitious target with the framework of this book. It covers a lot of ground. But the way in which the authors encompass the topics is, to my mind, very unique in the world of music psychology literature. Reading the chapters took me back to my days under their tutelage at Sheffield University in the UK.  Whatever the topic, the authors move seamlessly between relevant findings from the worlds of musicology, music psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, sociology and  anthropology.

The mixture may seem light at times, as the authors have opted to present a broad range of concepts over in-depth analysis of any one study in particular. But this book is more about ideas than exhaustive analysis. Along with this theme, references are kept to footnotes. There are also wonderful little asides, stories that help to illustrate points from a real life perspective. My personal favourite is little Ralph (p. 142)

I became very keen on the conversational tone of this book as I read. In the end, instead of picturing myself in a lecture hall I imagined myself sitting with Eric over coffee, talking to Nikki in the park or listening to Stephanie as I travelled home after work on the bus. They presented me with challenges to my ideas about music psychology. Together in my mind we debated the limits of academic study and music psychology as a discipline, rejoiced in important old and new discoveries, and dreamt up the experiments of the future.

This book got me thinking about the subject that drives my mind every day. I enjoyed it very much.

See here for an interview with the authors

One Comment

  • Dougie Clarkson

    Thank you for introducing me to the wanderful world of music psychology.
    I am always interested in reading of this kind, having just finished “Musicophelia” by Sax I will look this out.