Thank you for the music
ONE question that I have come up against a lot recently has begun to get on my nerves a little. Not the question itself, because I am more than happy to answer it, but the alarming frequency with which it rears its head. When I tell people that my master’s degree is in the ‘Psychology of Music’ the response is typically something along the lines of, ‘Really… What’s that then?’ It seems that the idea of studying music and psychology together is an interesting but perplexing one to many people. They also ask, ‘Where do you go to study that?’ and ‘How do you get funding?’ My desire in writing this short piece is to introduce music psychology to a wider student audience who may wish to know the sort of research that goes on within this expanding discipline and how you can, if you so desire, start to get involved.
So, why study music psychology? One major supportive argument is surely the enormous diversity of topic areas. Music has always been very much a part of our way of life, from everyday experience (e.g. radio in the car) to extraordinary events (e.g. religious and national celebrations). As such, music has a great part to play in the study of social and developmental-educational psychology. Hargreaves and North (1997) explore how the music we hear and employ as listeners can be studied in terms of musical tastes, socialisation, consumer behaviour and learning. There is also a large and active cognitive element which tackles issues such as the perception of melody and rhythm, and the formations and maintenance of memories for music. Furthermore, there are interests in emotional reactions, music therapy, links with language, and the effect of music in dual task situations (very relevant to me, as I’m writing while listening to Otis Redding).
So studying music may be appealing to psychologists wishing to broaden their research field. But conversely, psychology may interest you from the standpoint of being a musician. You could be interested in the types of changes that occur in the brain as a result of years of diligent musical training. You may be seeking to improve your understanding of the development of musical expertise. Alternatively, you may wish to learn about the role of music in the development and maintenance of social roles and relationships. If you would like to know more about the types of topics available from both perspectives, a good starting point is to look on the websites for pre-eminent journals in the field, including Psychology of Music (see www.sempre.org.uk Music Perception (tinyurl.com/yyn74c) and the British Journal of Music Education (tinyurl.com/wr7xe).
How do you leap into this fascinating world and where may it take you? There are a few undergraduate courses in the UK (Sheffield, Leeds) that offer music with psychology modules or vice versa, but the majority of focused psychology of music training is at the postgraduate level. In this country there are currently two major centres that offer postgraduate taught courses – Sheffield and Keele Universities. Both are fortunate enough to have some of the worlds leading experts in their fields on staff.
For research degrees, such as MPhil and PhD, your choice widens. If, like me, you choose to look at a traditional psychological area with a musical perspective you can try to find a willing supervisor in a psychology department, but be prepared to take on the burden of the music theory yourself! The reverse connotation (a musician in a music department developing a psychological perspective) is also possible and follows
a similar route.
Unfortunately, funding opportunities can be sparse. The AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) provides competitive studentships but these are limited in number, so it is worth searching for departmental funding or grants from companies/charities which may have an interest in your research findings. As to where you could end up, the possibilities are growing fast. There is an expanding international community of music psychologists, with strong links from Canada, America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Looking at the details of international conferences (e.g. ICMPC-International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition) is a good way to find lists of contributors and their interests. This should give you an idea of the worldwide opportunities for research in music psychology.
As a cross-discipline subject, music psychology can provide a fresh outlook
on a number of traditional psychological questions. It can force us to look at age-old theories and conceptions of both psychology and music in a different light. Within its scope, we can also begin to look at new and relevant situations that are increasingly important in the world in which we live. Psychologists aim to expand our understanding of the human mind and behaviour with reference to how we interact with the world. As a part of this, I believe it is vital that we understand the role of music. There is no human society on earth that does not use music in some form (Wallin et al., 2000). It is, and perhaps always will be, very much a part of our world.
Victoria Williamson is a PhD student at the University of York.
E-mail: [email protected].
Hargreaves, D.J. & North, A.C. (Eds.) (1997). The Social Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S. (2000). The origins of music. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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