The psychology of music

Humans spend enormous amounts of time, effort, and money on musical activities. Why?

The modern, international field of music psychology is gradually exploring a multitude of issues that surround this central question. Thus, music psychology may be regarded as scientific research about human culture. The results of this research have, and will continue to have, direct implications for matters of general concern: human values, human identity, human nature, and quality of life.

Music and human beings. Music cannot be separated from the people who engage with it:

Since music is a central element of the human condition, it follows that we can only understand music if we also understand the people who make and experience it - and vice-versa. Music psychology rises to this academic challenge by combining the serious academic study of music (musicology) with the serious academic study of human individuals (psychology).

Topics of research. Music psychologists investigate all aspects of musical behavior and experience by applying methods and knowledge from all aspects of psychology. Topics of study include for example:

Relevant areas of psychology include:

Music psychology is a subdiscipline of musicology. Music psychology can shed light on non-psychological aspects of musicology and musical practice. For example, music psychology contributes to music theory by investigating the perception of musical structures such as melody, harmony, tonality, rhythm, meter, and form. Research in music history can benefit from psychologically inspired, systematic study of the history of musical syntax, or from psychological analyses of the personalities of composers in relation to the psychological effect of their music. Ethnomusicology can benefit from psychological approaches to the study of music cognition in different cultures. Research is only beginning in many of these promising areas of interaction.

Music psychology is not music therapy. It is important to clearly distinguish between music psychology and music therapy. The two disciplines ask different questions and operate independently of each other. Music psychology is primarily an academic discipline, while music therapy is a profession. Music psychologists primarily conduct empirical, data-oriented research, while music therapists are primarily practice-oriented. Different countries such as Germany, Britain and the USA have different music therapy traditions; approaches to music psychology tend to be more uniform from one country to the next (although German music psychology as exemplified by the journal Jahrbuch Musikpsychologie maintains a tradition and focus that differs in interesting ways from international, English-language music psychology as exemplified by the journal Music Perception). If there is an overlap between music therapy and music psychology, it is quite small. Only very few music psychologists are qualified music therapists and only very few music therapists would be recognized by the international music psychology community as music psychologists. Empirical studies of the effect and effectiveness of music therapy are of interest to music psychologists, while the work of music therapists may be influenced by their reception of music psychology research.

Quality control in music psychology research. Questions in music psychology are often difficult to answer. It is therefore necessary to subject the research literature to careful quality control procedures. These generally take the form of anonymous expert peer review, which is a standard feature of all leading music-psychological societies, conferences, and journals.

Most cited music psychologists. Click here for a list of most cited music psychology publications and their authors.

Journals. The main music psychology journals (with availability in Graz) are:
Music Perception (MuWi-IB)
Psychology of Music (KUG-UB)
Jahrbuch Musikpsychologie (MuWi- IB)

The following journals include a high proportion of music-psychological articles:
Musicae Scientiae (MuWi-IB)
Journal of New Music Research (MuWi-IB)

Other music psychology journals include:
Empirical Musicology Review
Codex Flores

Music psychologists also publish in a wide range of mainstream musicology, music theory/analysis, psychology, music education, music therapy, music medicine, and systematic musicology journals. The latter include for example:
Computer Music Journal
Journal of Mathematics and Music
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

Empirical Studies of the Arts

Books. Leading book publishers in the area of music psychology include Oxford University Press and MIT Press.

Conferences. The most important conference in music psychology is the biannual International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition.

Other important conferences are organized regularly by:
European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM)
Society for Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC, USA)

Regional music psychology conferences are organised regularly by:
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Musikpsychologie (DGM)
Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE, Britain)

International Symposium on Cognition and Musical Arts (Brazil)
Japanese Society for Music Perception and Cognition (JSMPC)
Australian Music and Psychology Society (AMPS)
Asia-Pacific Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (APSCOM)

Email lists. The leading email list in the area of music psychology is Psymus. Music-psychological topics are also addressed on the following lists:
Systematische Musikwissenschaft (MuWiSys)
Society for Music Theory (SMT-LIST)
SMT Music Cognition Group (SMTMCG)

Sound and mind

Centers. Music psychology (including music perception, music cognition, and music performance research) is studied and researched at many universities and music academies including the following:

Researchers. Leading music psychologists of our time include Helga de la Motte-Haber, Carol L. Krumhansl and John A. Sloboda. Links to the home pages of other music psychologists: 1, 2.

Further information. See also the Music Cognition Resource Center and

The opinions expressed on this page are the personal opinions of the author.
Suggestions for improving and extending the content are welcome.
I entered this text into Wikipedia in March 2006.
© Richard Parncutt 2005-2006.