Psychology of Music

Music psychology, or the psychology of music, is a field of scientific study investigating the mental operations underlying the listening to, performing of and composing of music, as well as dancing. Music psychology is closely related to core disciplines such as psychology and musicology but it also draws from cognitive science and music therapy. The goal of music psychology is to understand and explain musical behavior and musical experience mainly through analyzing empirical data.

Music psychology emerged as an independent academic discipline in the 1980s. However, its roots can be traced back to experimentation with musical instruments in ancient Greece and China. In the 1880s, music psychology gained popularity as a research topic in Germany and Austria. However, it took more than a century to turn music psychology from a topic pursued by individual scholars from different disciplines into a more unified field. This happened in the 1980s and 1990s when there was an explosion of activity in this area. Researchers had the opportunity to share their ideas at specialized venues for interdisciplinary research in music such as journals, conferences, societies, institutes and centers for research and educational programs. According to some scholars, the book The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music (1986) by UK psychologist John A. Sloboda (1950-) is a landmark publication from the early years of music psychology as an independent scientific field.

There are a number of research areas within music psychology. The most prominent one is considered to be music perception and cognition, in which scholars examine how various aspects of music are perceived, interpreted and remembered by listeners and performers. Other research areas are music development (how music behaviors change throughout life), music performance, motor planning and the attainment of expertise, assessment of musical ability and the role of music in everyday life. In addition, music psychology researchers are also interested in disorders of music processing, cross-cultural similarities and differences, and music education, as well as the biological and evolutionary basis of music. Other research topics that are gaining popularity are musical emotion, music-language comparisons and neural substrates of musical behaviors.

However, music psychology research has not been comprehensive, for example it has been limited to the western musical context. Other understudied topics include the relation between music and culture and the evolutionary origins of music.

According to one common belief that has been widely promoted by media, passive exposure to classical music (for example Mozart) enhances intelligence, especially in children. However, this notion is considered to be exaggerated as it has been proven that any mentally stimulating task has the same positive short-term effects when performed before taking cognitive tests. Music training has been linked to certain long-term benefits on academic performance, but this can be explained by the fact that such training is often based on learning models used in schools. According to some studies, listening to music has some positive effects such as reduction of pain and stress, probably because it distracts people or raises the levels of endorphins and dopamine. Listening to music is also said to enhance feelings of well-being and social relatedness.

One long-standing and unresolved issue in the field of music psychology is the question of how musical aptitude, or the potential to acquire musical skills, can be identified. According to some scholars, musical ability or talent is innate, while others believe that high levels of music achievement are a result of motivation in combination with effort. It is difficult to reach a common conclusion on this issue, as scholars have different opinions about how to define musical talent and how to assess performance for component skills (rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony) and their manifestations in performance, interpretation and composition.

The field of music psychology is constantly growing and developing. One sign of this growth is the appearance of educational programs specific to music psychology, through which the next generation can learn the fundamental assumptions of the field from the existing community of scientists. Another sign is the development of a historiography of the field, which studies how and why research questions were formed and how research methods were developed. In addition, there has been a shift in psychologists' thinking about the importance of studying music in order to understand how the brain is organized. At the same time, the thinking of musicologists has also changed and many scholars are turning to music psychology.

Psychology of Music: Selected full-text books and articles

Psychology for Musicians: Understanding and Acquiring the Skills By Andreas C. Lehmann; John A. Sloboda; Robert H. Woody Oxford University Press, 2007
Musical Perceptions By Rita Aiello; John A. Sloboda Oxford University Press, 1994
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "Emotion and Meaning in Music" begins on p. 3 and Chap. 3 "Perception: A Perspective from Music Theory" begins on p. 64
Music in Everyday Life By Tia DeNora Cambridge University Press, 2000
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