Research in the Psychology of Music

Research in the Psychology of Music uses psychological theories and methods to interpret and understand musical sounds, musical behaviors, and the effects of music. The subject is strongly inter-disciplinary, and generally combines empirical data collection, through observation, experiments, surveys or otherwise, with theoretical innovation. The scope of research ranges from fundamental questions related to music perception and cognition to applications of music psychology in everyday life. The breadth of research is reflected in the discovery of new concepts and ideas in cognitive enhancement with the use of music as a medium.

Examples of research areas:
Music in the workplace
Teaching and learning of expressive music performance
Music perception in hearing impaired listeners
Dropping in and dropping out – exploring experiences of lapsed and partial arts engagement
Earworms (tunes that stick in our heads) as we age
Demystifying music review
Music to support sleep
Space and embodiment in headphone listening
Cross-modal perception of music
Expressive nonverbal communication in ensemble performance
Perception of hierarchical structures in tonal and atonal music
Connectionist modelling of rhythm perception
Perception and semiotics of music in film
Music and paranormal phenomena
Experimental studies of sight-reading
the perception of electroacoustic music
Musical performance and bodily movement
Expressive performance in young cellists
Music and synaesthesia
Music and consciousness

Broadly conceived, research in the Psychology of Music is concerned with understanding the psychological processes involved in listening to music, playing music, and composing and improvising music, using empirical, theoretical and computational methods. Psychologists, computer scientists and musicologists all make contributions to this highly interdisciplinary research domain, and their research encompasses experimental work on music perception and cognition, computer modelling of human musical capacities, the social psychology of music, emotion and meaning in music, psychological processes in music therapy, the developmental psychology of music, music and consciousness, music and embodiment, and the neuroscience of music.

One specific example of research areas is the research study of Gavin Ryan Shafron from the University of California in 2010 – Music has been used for thousands of years as a means of emotional expression. The goals of this paper are to (a) review current literature on how music induces emotion (b) explore the mechanisms of how this happens both physiologically and psychologically and (c) to look at the role of desired effect and musical preference to move towards a general conclusion of what drives listeners’ musical choices. This paper approaches this by looking at structural theories of music including those of Krumhansl (1997) that music has inherent qualities that instill specific responses in the listener. The paper then continues by addressing a Jungian perspective often employed in music therapy.

Here, music is used to express what is otherwise inexpressible. The Behavioral Perspective section postulates that music can prime listeners by making them predisposed through associations to feel positive or negative emotions. This theory is carried over to an analysis of music and consumerism where emotional priming can serve as a bridge to an association with a product.

The Physiological Effects section explores research on music’s somatic connection indicating that pleasant music reduces stress and may decrease the body’s post-stress responses. The Music and Performance section analyzes the Mozart effect and its potential relationship to the arousal and mood hypothesis, stating that the improved spatial IQ scores recorded in the Mozart effect may have more to do with the arousal generated by all classical music rather than Mozart’s music itself.

The paper concludes with an analysis of what drives listeners and the Arnett (1991a; 1991b; 1992) heavy metal studies, which show that music is the way adolescents deal with emotional upheaval and how music can be used as a means of achieving catharsis.

Music is a coping mechanism, and unfortunately not all coping mechanisms are good. For instance, using venting and rumination as coping mechanisms relate positively to depression and other mood disorders. Using distraction and positive reappraisal (or “looking on the bright side”), meanwhile, is negatively correlated with depression.

So the next time you have a bad day and curl up in bed with the soft sounds of Mozart or the energetic sounds of Metallica, think to yourself, why am I listening to this music? When I’m done listening to it, will I feel better? Or worse?

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