What is music psychology?

Music psychology is the study of human perception and experience of acoustical and musical phenomenons, and the perspective is interdisciplinary ( Bonde 2007).  An alternative definition could be that music psychology is the study of the relations between music and man. Frede V. Nielsen suggests that music psychology is both musicology and psychology ( Nielsen 1983,V ).  Nielsen’s point is, that it is in the field between musicology and psychology that music psychology is interesting. 

 John Sloboda(2005) writes that a central problem for the psychology of music is to explain the structure and content of musical experience, and that this involves examining two major questions: a) What is the nature of musical knowledge or representation: b) How does music have aestetic and emotional effects ? ( Sloboda 2005, p 97-98).  In the above mentioned, lies an implicit distinction between cognition and emotion. The distinction might be useful, but we must be aware of the fact that cognitive functions and emotions are interdependent  ( Illeris 2006).  

The psychological approach to music

Sloboda writes about the psychological approach to music: ” The fundamental characteristic that distinguishes the psychologist of music from the music theorist or analyst is the former’s concern with empirical measurement of musical behavior or response.” ( Sloboda  2005, p 119). This statement could be classified as belonging to a natural science oriented perspective, but there are other perspectives than this. Bonde writes that music psychology is influenced by both natural science and humanities( Bonde 2007).

 The history of music psychology

Music psychology as a scientific area started in the late 19th century in Germany  ( Helmholtz  and Humpf) and was later developed  in the USA  (Seashore). This first phase was dominated by a natural science and experimental perspective. Music was considered as an objective acoustical phenomenon and the scientists where focusing on observation and measurement of human perception of  sound. The main parameters used to understand what music is where frequency, amplitude, intensity and wavelenght. (Bonde 2007). The early music psychology can give us valuable knowledge about sound perception, but it doesn’t really give us a truthfully picture of  the complexity of human music experience.

Central themes in music psychology

Music and emotions

An important word to mention, concerning  the emotional effect of music, is expectation. Both  fulfillment of expectations and the opposite are of importance if we want to understand the emotional effects of music. The structures of the music creates specific expectations to the continuation and these expectations  are also dependent of musical experience ( Bonde p 38).     

 In an interview, the Danish musician and scientist Peter Vuust calls music a play with expectations. Vuust claims to have shown the importance of fulfilment of expectations. Sloboda emphazises, in an interview with BBC, the unexpected. My own personal belief is that we need both fulfillment of expectation and surprise to be emotionally moved by music. 

Emotional response to of music is dynamic, and the emotional peaks appear to be associated with the structure of the music (Sloboda 2005,p 225), and there might be a correspondence between the shape and course of the music and the shape and course of the emotional experience. ( Bonde p 11).

 I am of the opinion that  the “right” balance concerning the general structural features repetition, variation and contrast in a piece music is of great importance concerning the emotional effects of music. This has to do with the fulfillment of expectations and the opposite.  The experience of tension and resolution in music activities is another important theme, that I would like to write about in another article. 

Sloboda writes that a major function of music is to mediate emotional responses and that common musical structures have proberties that support the patterns of expectation underlying such emotions. Expression in performance might has the effect of making important structural features more prominent. Concerning this, William Forde Thompson writes that: ” The emotions that we experience in music are influenced by both the structure of a music composition and by the expression used to perform that composition. ” ( Thompson 2009, p 144)

When speaking about musical expertise, Sloboda emphasizes understanding and use of  the link between musical structure and  emotion. He thinks that a difference between musical expertise and many other forms of expertise has to with this structure-emotion link.( Sloboda 2005, p 256). 

Tensions and resolutions, that are associated with the musical structure, and the ‘right balance’ between the expected and the unexpected that people experience when listening to music, are all issues of importance when we want to understand the relation between music and emotion.  

Musical representation

Musical representation is the presence in the human mind of  musical experiences/perceptions and musical knowledge.  Sloboda writes about  musical representation: ” If the mental representation of music is not simply a copy(however reduced the ‘grain’) of the original acoustic signal, and is this representation is in some respects shared by composer/performer and listener, then such a representation might be held to comprimise the ‘meaning’ of the music.” ( Sloboda 2005,p 163).  Thompson  writes  that “our understanding of music is stored in the brain as a mental representation.” ( Thompson 2009, p 53). 

A controversy in psychology in genereal is whether learning should be understood with reference to terms like representation.  In a constructivist view, a term like  representation is not used very often. However, I will not go further into this discussion.    

 In the book  A Generative Theory of Tonal music from 1983, Lerdahl and Jackendoff present a theory about musical representation which partly is grounded on the assumption that tonal music is constructed according to a rulebased grammar or syntax.  Concepts from linguistics are used as a analytical framework, and Lerdahl and Jackendoff understand musical grammar as sets of explicit and implicit rules that in some way determines how people experience the” well-formedness” of musical sequences. ( Sloboda 2005). 

Musical ability

We can find a lot of different examples of musical ability but in general this might has to with the ability to make sense of musical sequences, and  most people have a receptive musical ability.( Sloboda 1985, p 265-266).  A part of this “To make sense of music”, might be about a kind of implicit understanding of the “rules” of a given kind of music when playing, listening and composing this kind of music. 

Gordon uses the word audiation which is the ability to give meaning to what one hears and he has described five stages in the process of audiation:

1) Perception of sound,  2)One begins to give meaning to sound through tonal and rhythmic patterns within a context of tonality and meter, 3) One asks ” What have I just heard”? and begins to find answers, 4) This stage is about asking the question ” Where have I heard these patterns and sounds before ?”, 5) One begins to predict what one will hear next. (Shuter- Dyson 1999, p 631 )

 When speaking about musical ability, Rosamund Shuter-Dyson ( 1999) makes the distinction between aptitude and achievement. Music aptitude is about the potential for learning music, but high achivement requires (as most people know) also training.  Shuter-Dyson categorizes these musical abilities :   Tonal abilities, Rhythmic abilities, Kinesthetic abillities, Aestetic abilities, Creative abilities.


Bonde, Lars Ole (2007) : Introduktion til musikpsykologi, Psyke og logos,28, p 26-60.

Illeris, Knud(2006): Læring, Roskilde universitetsforlag

Nielsen, Frede V. (1983) Oplevelse af musikalsk spænding, Akademisk Forlag, København

Sloboda, John( 2005): Exploring the musical mind, Oxford university press

Shuter-Dyson, Rosamund (1999):  Musical ability, chapter 16 in The Psychology of music, Ed. Diana Deutsch, Academic press, 1999.

Thompson, William Forde (2009): Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of music, Oxford University Press

www.open2net    BBC