Music Psychology

Music Psychology – Why?

This weekend I went out with a group of people to a very nice restaurant in Cambridge. Mostly the company consisted of old friends I had met while I was doing my PhD; one who studies cross modal emotion integration in the brain and is at the moment looking at brain activations in severely depressed teenagers, and one who is looking at development in children with severe language impairments. As well as a chance to catch up with my chums this occasion afforded chances to make new friends, as our company contained new acquaintances. As is usual in social situations of this kind, conversation turned to jobs. What do you do for a living? – A very common ‘cocktail party’ question and probably one of the first questions every new acquaintance will ask you, in the UK at least. However, more often than not I seem to encounter an extra step after this question that my academic colleagues do not. If they describe what they are doing they might hear a response along the lines of ‘how interesting!’ or ‘oh, well that must be so rewarding’, or ‘what sort of things are you finding?’ The response I often face these days is… ‘why’?

This response took me back to a related stumbling block I encountered a few years ago. In 2005 I wrote an article for The Psychologist magazine called ‘Thank you for the music’ . I wrote the first draft of this article on a Saturday morning, following the first week on my PhD course at the University of York. For my PhD I had elected to carry on the studies of music psychology that I had begun in my Masters course at Sheffield, and in particular I wanted to study musical memory. I wrote the article in a kind of ephemeral response to the numerous people who had asked me the same question that week: ‘Music psychology?…What is that then?’ Few people seemed to have any concept of what it meant to study music in relation to the human mind. ‘Did I mean music therapy?’ Well, no I didn’t. Psychology is the study of the human mind and behaviour, I would say, and I am studying a specialism in that field – how our minds and behaviours are affected by music. That answer seemed to satisfy most people, and they would usually then go on to describe how music affected them: Which was fine with me – jolly interesting in fact. I found that Taxi drivers were an especially rich and giving source of information in these situations.

Now it occurred to me, as I walked home on Saturday night from the dinner, that nobody really asked me that question anymore. It seems that in the last 5 years music psychology has become better known and more accepted as part of mainstream academic research. Well perhaps not mainstream yet, as it is still very hard to study music psychology at undergraduate level in the UK, but it pops up more and more in the media and the general public seem to be more clued in to the types of things that music psychology might entail beyond the realms of music therapy. And most of them will be kind enough to show some interest in what I am doing. But now, rather than ‘what is it’ there is a different question to face. Why? Why would you do that? And perhaps more dangerously, what is the point?

When considering this point for myself, as I passed by the young Saturday night revellers in Cambridge centre, I was reminded of a quote ascribed to one of the greats of our discipline, John Sloboda. He said:

“Suppose all the music psychology in the world had never been written and was expunged from the collective memory of the world, as it had never existed, how would music and musicians be disadvantaged? Would composers compose less good music, would performers cease to perform so well, would those who enjoy listening to it enjoy it any less richly?”

This initially struck me as a rather stark statement for one of the modern fathers of a discipline. And my initial reaction, as one who is passionate about their discipline, was one of defence.  I started stubbornly and defiantly listing in my head all the advancements we had made through the study of music psychology. We understand now the method by which music therapy can improve quality of life and our physical condition. We understand more about the effect music has on the brain which has taught us not only about the function of the brain but opened up a world of opportunity in terms of achieving optimal states of mood and cognitive functioning. We understand more about the way that children learn music and how to best teach them to maximise enjoyment and achievement. And we know more about how musicians achieve feats of memory on stage and how their performances can touch an audience. All these points, and I was just getting started, I argued were great insights backed up by excellent scientific studies that had the potential to improve our daily lives; musicians, educators, the medical profession and the average everyday listener.

And then I stopped being so obdurate. I took a metaphorical deep breath and I thought again. Why am I being so defensive? It is actually an entirely reasonable question to pose. John’s statement was not making a point to be treated as a criticism or an attack. It is an opportunity to think and to reason. Why, indeed, might music psychology be important? What is its potential? Where is it really valuable and how might we get to that point? To assume that everyone should automatically see the value of what you are doing as academics (or anything in life) is a mistake. No wonder academics get criticised for living in ‘ivory towers’ in universities if every time someone asks us why we do what we do we close ranks and roll our eyes, amazed that someone has apparently failed to appreciate what we are doing.

I am a great fan of the philosopher Alain de Botton and listen regularly to his Radio 4 show called ‘A Point of View’. It is a ten minute snippet of reasoned comment that is beautifully argued and always gets me thinking. A few weeks ago he talked about what the humanities should teach in modern universities, and I can recommend it to anyone who is connected with universities or who has an interest in their current financial plight (listen here).

During the ten minutes he points out that many people are reacting to the financial cuts in the higher education field with outrage, claiming we are heading for a new age of philistinism where the nation finally gives up on serious culture and instead focuses on just making money. He himself cares deeply for the humanities and believes they have an important role to play in a healthy society. But what many academics have failed to do effectively, he argues, is to communicate the value of what they are doing. Instead of facing the cuts head on and really justifying why they should continue their research, they fall back on the assumption that people should just naturally be in awe and grateful of the work done in universities on their behalf; that the public position should be one of quiet and deferential respect.

Alain points out that this idea is both old fashioned and out of place in the modern world. Universities receive millions of pounds of public money every year. Of course we should justify what we do for them in return. It is our duty to communicate our findings, to show how our research has the potential to benefit to the world around us and to think, really think, about the consequences of any studies we might be planning.

In grant finding applications, which I am filling in more and more these days, there is always a section where you must justify your investment. This is a section which, if I am honest, used to be one of my least favourite ones to write. But I think in the future I will take on John Sloboda’s words, and those of Alain de Botton, and approach both these grant applications and anyone who might ask about my job with less of a bullish, defensive air. Whether it is posed by a box on a form or friends in a restaurant, this question of ‘why?’ is an opportunity both the think and to reason, just as the question of ‘what?’ was once an opportunity to introduce the idea of the discipline amongst the public and numerous taxi journeys. Rather than roll my eyes and think, ‘why do I have to describe this, it should be obvious’ I should treat the question of why as a chance to talk to someone about the value of music psychology, the promise that it holds, and to explore in my own mind the degree to which my work might be contributing to the world around me.

So those are my thoughts on the subject of why. If you are faced with this question too I would love to hear your thoughts. How do you answer it? Do you focus on any particular part of your research as you think it might be ‘more acceptable’ to the public?  Are there any parts of research in music psychology that you think really have no impact in the traditional sense but are worth exploring as an intellectual exercise in any case? Any and all comments and thoughts are most welcome.


  • Sebastian

    Hey Vicky,

    you finished the article without telling me the solution! That’s not fair, or maybe it is… However, it seems history repeats itself. Since I started my PhD I had to explain at least 500 times what I am doing and what it is good for, to all my friends and relatives. It made me thinking, too and I am getting better in explaining it, but on the other hand not everything has to be explained rationally… Being curious and enjoying to explore new thinks might be a very good reason, too. What do you think?

  • Aaron Wolf

    Great to see you supporting this broader perspective! Surely we can all think of things for which funding is unjustified, right? So we shouldn’t resent the idea of justifying things. We should be our own toughest critics and ask “what good is this?” before anyone else does!

    I’m currently struggling with a decision to go into a PhD in music, hoping to connect to psychological perspectives somewhat, but my wife and I got accepted into schools in different places and we are very hesitant to be separated. She is studying Natural Resources, and I can’t help but think that if it is one or the other, her career is more fundamentally valuable. Yet I may go ahead with my PhD (or at least get back to it eventually)… The one thing I can say with certainty is that I think all music academics ought to be as skeptical of the field as I am. There’s enough trivia out there already, and we *do* need to constantly check that what we’re doing is making a substantial contribution!

  • Sundeep

    Hi, that quote from Mr Sloboda made me chuckle. As someone not in this field, I can see some benefits like therapy, more enjoyable music (both for audiences and musicians), business uses for pop industry and advertising.

    But I agree with the point of the post. As a non-academic, I like to know that the research actually has a point or is trying to figure something out that hopefully will be useful.

  • Peter

    As you said Music psychology is the study of the human mind and behaviours and how minds and behaviours are affected by music. The why should not be a question but more the how to change scientifical knowledge in knowledge for a therapeutical approach. When taking in consideration that music is artificial sound production maybe the psychology should go back to its roots and start with sound or vibrations who are affecting human development. There is a growing number of children with delays or disorders such as autistic behaviour, chaotic, etc. probably due to pulsory sounds. Generally meaning that the brain was not capable to absorbe and organize the unconscious information especially the influences of high frequencies. When being able to relate percieved sound including high frequenies and music in combination with brain development and fine motor I believe the music psychology will have a great influence in educational systems and individual approaches. Maybe you have ideas and hope you are willing to share.