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Music Psychology

Music psychology is a subject that studies how people experience, express, learn and use music. The music psychologists investigate how music affects us, why we experience emotions when we listen to music and what happens in the brain and body when we are engaged in music. Music psychology treats how we learn music, what music is, and why people have different tastes of music.

Music psychological research is in a range from acoustics to aesthetics. While some researchers use the laboratory and science methods to study reactions to music, others will investigate the relationships between musical structures and our aesthetic experiences and emotional responses.


Music psychological questions have their roots in ancient times with philosophers such as Pythagoras, Aristotle and Plato. These thinkers were concerned with the mathematical basis of music, how we generally perceive musical phenomena and how music could have the ability to imitate human qualities.

Music psychology emerged as a new science in the late 1800s, as part of what is called systematic music science. Known names from this early period are Hermann Helmholtz (1821–1894), Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) and Carl Stumpf (1848–1936).


The first researchers in music psychology were concerned with the acoustic basis of music, and they related to a direction in psychology called psychophysics. This involved experimenting with how small elements of music influenced our experiences. These earlier experiments laid the foundation for music psychological research on how we perceive music, what is called musical perception. For example, phenomena such as dissonance, tonality and harmony were studied.

The philosopher Franz Brentano (1838–1917) was also an early researcher in the field, but he was passionate about phenomenology, that is, how we experience music. In this way, one could start exploring how the brain processes sound and music. This opened the way to how body, thoughts and emotions interact when we experience music.

The acoustic approach was gradually supplemented with gestalt psychology and cognitive psychology. Among scholars who were inspired by these early traditions we find Carl Seashore (1866-1949) who was engaged in musical research. Other prominent scholars during this period in the early nineteenth century were Ernst Kurth (1886–1946) and Géza Revesz (1878–1955).

A key researcher in the Gestalt psychological tradition was the American James Mursell (1893–1963) who also made important contributions to music didactics and music pedagogy. Mursell felt that one should not be so concerned with measuring how the many small elements of music affected us. He argued that musical wholes should form the basis for music psychological studies, not least of musicality.

Another scientific direction that has influenced music psychology is behaviorism, especially in connection with studies of musical learning. A prominent name here is Robert Lundin. Music psychology influenced by behaviorism is particularly concerned with studying musical behavior, by measuring and recording all aspects of our dealings with music.

Throughout the last century, music psychology has also been influenced by psychoanalytic theory, cybernetics and information theory, as well as social psychology. Today, brain research and cognitive psychology play an important role, and research is influenced by theories of body-based perception (embodied perception).

Research areas

Music psychological research has practical significance for a number of areas, such as musical performance, musical skills, composition, music pedagogy and music therapy. Key fields of research are:

Musical perception. Here one examines, for example, how memory forms an important prerequisite for the storage of acoustic memories. Short-term memory, long-term memory, echoing memory, working memory and episodic memory come into play when we focus on something in the sounds or music. The memory, or what is called "working memory" or "narrative memory", helps us to put pieces of music into a coherent musical narrative. We store sounds and contexts of sounds in long-term memory, which helps us recognize elements of the music. The psychology of music states that "scripts" or "forms" are formed that help us recognize and organize the sounds of musically meaningful devices. In this process, different parts of the brain interact by comparing information from memory, associations and emotions.

Musicality. Studies of what music consists in and why some people show greater musicality than others have been of the core areas of music psychology. Throughout the nineteenth century a number of tests were developed to measure differences in musicality. These tests could involve anything from the ability to distinguish between small differences in pitch, sound, volume and tones to respond adequately to larger musical contexts.

Such theories of musicality as a specialized form of ability to perceive music are challenged by the music anthropology, which views music as a general human characteristic, in the same way as language ability.

In recent decades, theories of musicality have also emerged that emphasize that this is about the ability to communicate through music. Already in infants, it shows a form of "communicative musicality" when the child interacts with close caregivers by making use of sounds with different pitch, intonation and strength.

Musical development, learning and rehearsal. For music educators, it is important to use knowledge related to musical development and how we acquire skills in music. The music psychologists will map how music plays into our lives from before birth and how musical elements appear in early communication. In line with general psychological development, children will acquire skills in singing cleanly, keeping pace, and responding to harmonies in music. Studies of musical practice have also given us knowledge on how to improve musical skills more effectively.

Music and emotions. The study of music and emotions, or emotions, has taken an increasingly important place in music psychology in recent decades. Here we have been concerned with how music can both reflect, trigger and express emotions. Studies of strong music experiences and what this means for listeners are also devoted attention. The use of music to regulate emotions has also become an important field of work for music psychologists as music and playlists on smartphones can be utilized wherever we go. Music is used to change emotions and moods, to energize or calm us down.

Music and brain. Music psychologists with a background in brain research are increasingly giving us knowledge about the relationship between music influence and brain activity. By using new technology to investigate which parts of the brain are involved in the experience and interpretation of music, one wants to map which areas of the brain are activated under the influence of music.

Musical taste. The music psychologists have been concerned with how and why we acquire different musical tastes. For example, it has been examined whether there are any correlations between personality and preferences for particular types of music. Social psychologists have looked at how upbringing, musical influences in school and home, as well as social affiliation help shape our relationship with music.

Music and identity. Studies of music experiences and musical memories have shed light on how music experiences and memories of music can form a raw material in the stories we create about ourselves. Here it turns out that music experiences are associated with important people in our lives, places we are connected to and the time we are grown up in, which can help create continuity in our identity or life story. Studies also show that people identify with artists and music which in turn are associated with values ​​and social positions, gender and ethnicity.

Reciting. An important area of ​​music psychology is about helping practitioners cope with performance anxiety. Other areas of research are studies of movement to music and planning and acquisition of motor skills. Acoustic reading and hearing are other areas studied, as well as the role of emotion in musical performance.

Improvisation and composition. The music psychologists also want to shed light on the creative processes behind the formation of music. They can be about studies of motivation and driving forces behind composing or the relationship between composing and improvisation. Theories of creativity play an important role in this research and models have been devised to illustrate the thought processes and cognitive maps behind the preparation of finished pieces of music or improvisation of music.

Music in everyday life. Today's music psychologists are concerned about the role of music in everyday life. They ask how and why we use music, in what situations we listen and what functions this music use has in our lives. It can include concerts, music as accompaniment to a range of everyday activities such as driving, doing housework, exercising, relaxing, etc. Music psychologists also examine how music is used in advertising, film and computer games, or in other contexts where we are affected. Studies of background music in shops and restaurants also shed light on the many functions of the music.

Music therapy. Music psychological research provides an important foundation for music therapists to understand how it is possible to communicate and interact through music. Knowledge related to musical development, identity, taste and how music is used in connection with emotional regulation forms an important starting point for music therapeutic methods and interventions.

Research Methods

To study the constituents of music, how we perceive music and how it affects us, music psychologists use a variety of methods. This can be anything from laboratory tests using physics measuring instruments to questionnaires, observations and interviews. Using new digital technology, researchers can record and study our musical gestures and movements to music. Or we can use the smartphone and its apps to instruct the subjects to record and tell about how they experience music in everyday situations. Brain researchers also use modern scanning technology to capture images of brain activity while listening to or performing music, or they can record brain electrical activity during music influence. The music psychologists also measure our physiological reactions to music to study the relationship between bodily reactions and emotions.

Top Psychology Schools in California
Rankings Psychology Programs Departments and Schools
1 Stanford University
Address: Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford, CA 94305-2130
Phone: (650) 725-2400
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/webd/gradprogram
Department of Psychology
2 University of California - Berkeley
Address: 3210 Tolman Hall #1650, Berkeley, CA 94720-1650
Phone: (510) 642-1382
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://psychology.berkeley.edu/graduate/index.html
Department of Psychology
3 University of California - Los Angeles
Address: 1285 Franz Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563
Phone: (310) 825-2961
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.psych.ucla.edu/graduate
Department of Psychology
4 University of California - San Diego
Address: 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182-4611
Phone: (619) 594-5358
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.psychology.sdsu.edu/new-web/gradprograms.htm
Department of Psychology
5 University of California - Davis
Address: 134 Young Hall, Davis, CA 95616
Phone: (530) 752-9362
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/graduate/
Department of Psychology
6 University of California - Irvine
Address: 3340 Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697-7085
Phone: (949) 824-9562
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://socialecology.uci.edu/psb/gradprog
Department of Psychology and Social Behavior
7 University of California - Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 893-2793
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/graduate/graduate.php
Department of Psychology
8 University of Southern California
Address: 3620 S. McClintock Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1061
Phone: (213) 740-2203
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://college.usc.edu/psyc/graduate/
Department of Psychology
9 San Diego State University
Address: 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182-4611
Phone: (619) 594-5358
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.psychology.sdsu.edu/new-web/gradprograms.htm
Department of Psychology
10 University of California - Riverside
Phone: (951) 827-6306
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.psych.ucr.edu/grad/index.html
Department of Psychology
11 Claremont Graduate University (Drucker)
Address: 123 E. Eighth Street, Claremont, CA 91711
Phone: (909) 621-8084
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.cgu.edu/pages/502.asp
School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences
12 University of California - Merced
Address: PO Box 2039, Merced, CA 95344
Phone: (209) 228-4105
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://psychology.ucmerced.edu/
School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts
13 Fuller Theological Seminary
Address: 135 N. Oakland Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91182
Phone: (626) 584-5400
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.fuller.edu/academics/school-of-psychology/about-sop.aspx
School of Psychology
14 Alliant International University
Address: 5130 E. Clinton Way , Fresno, CA 93727
Phone: (559) 456-2777
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: https://www.alliant.edu/wps/wcm/connect/website/Home/
California School of Professional Psychology
15 Biola University
Address: 13800 Biola Avenue, La Mirada, CA 90639
Phone: (800) 652-4652
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.rosemead.edu/programs/
Rosemead School of Psychology
16 Fielding Graduate University
Address: 2112 Santa Barbara Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Phone: (805) 687-1099
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.fielding.edu/schoolpsy/index.htm
School of Psychology
17 Institute of Transpersonal Psychology
Address: 1069 E. Meadow Circle, Palo Alto, CA 94303
Phone: (650) 493-4430
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.itp.edu/academics/index.php
Graduate Programs in Psychology
18 Pacifica Graduate Institute
Address: 249 Lambert Road, Carpinteria, CA 93013
Phone: (805) 969-3626
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.pacifica.edu/graduate_programs.html
Graduate Degree Programs
19 Palo Alto University
Address: 405 Broadway, Redwood City, CA 94063
Phone: (800) 818-6136
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.pgsp.edu/program_phd_psychology_home.php
Ph.D. in Psychology Program
20 Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
Address: 747 Front Street, San Francisco, CA 94111-1920
Phone: (800) 825-4480
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.saybrook.edu/index.asp
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