From the first melodic sounds of a mother’s crooning voice to the jangled rhythms of a teenager’s rebellion to the slow waltz of a wedding song, music accompanies us through our lives, setting a pace to follow and charting our progress. Many of us even choose the music we want at the end of our lives, picking hymns or symbolic songs for funeral services.
Humans across cultures and throughout time have created and responded to music, trembling in response to a battle hymn or rocking out to a drum solo. Obviously music is extremely important to human culture, to growth, to socialization, to a sense of self. But how and why does it affect us? What differentiates us from other species when it comes to music? Does performing or creating music affect the brain in different ways than listening does?
The field of music psychology focuses mainly on research seeking to determine the physical and emotional effects that music has on humans. Researchers around the world have looked at the issue from many sides, from mapping the brain’s activity during performances to tracking how a child responds to a lullaby or learns the alphabet through song.
It’s a field that has only recently taken hold within psychology. According to Roger Chaffin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut and head of the UConn Music Performance Lab, music psychology grew out of the study of language and has grown over the past few decades.
“The psychology of language, which burst onto the scene in the 1960s is focused on understanding the psychological processes involved and this builds on the larger field of memory, which goes back to the 1880s,” he says. “So we are interested in the processes involved in music.”
His work was in memory and, when asked by Gabriela Imreh, a concert pianist, to speak to her students about memorization techniques they could use to improve their performance, he felt himself drawn down a new path.
“One thing led to another and we did a longitudinal case study [on how performers learn their music] and wrote a book and several articles,” he says. Their book, “Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance,” details the steps taken to learn a complicated piece and how our understanding of the principles of memory can be applied to the realm of music performance.
Annabel Cohen, Ph.D., editor of the journal Psychomusicology and council representative for the American Psychological Association’s Division 10, (Society for Psychology and the Arts), adds that advances in technology have made a difference in the field. Where music had been central to the study of the mind at the turn of the 19th century, she says, it dropped out of favor in part because of the practical difficulties it posed.
“Previously, it was difficult to research with music; it was so ephemeral unlike visual materials. It was not as easily controlled as it is now. People were not walking around with iPods and listening to music all day. Now you can control the music and with brain imaging, technology has played a large role in enabling people to study what intrigues them the most.”
A professor of psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, Cohen has been focusing on music in film and heading an international, multidisciplinary study on singing. A seven-year process, the singing initiative gathers research from more than 70 studies across the world around the development of singing ability, connections between singing and learning and the enhancement of health and well-being through singing.
Nearly anything to do with music can be studied. One research project examined sub-clinical autistic traits in musicians who have perfect pitch. Another study showed that fast and loud background music negatively affects reading comprehension and another showed how music can be used by advertisers to manipulate moral judgment.
In Boston, Psyche Loui, Ph.D., instructor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in the Music and Neuroimaging Lab, is looking at how humans respond to music that is not governed by the rules we are used to in the Western system. When music does not follow expected paths, can we learn new systems and learn to like a completely different style of music?
“In general, we can,” she says. “We can remember what we have heard and pick out new instances and we can learn to like certain pieces when they have been repeated often, even if they are severely odd.”
Her work extends to understanding how tone deaf people are different in brain function. Since they can generally talk and interact normally, what makes them unable to recognize tonal differentiations? In a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience, she and collaborators described a reduced connectivity for people who are tone deaf in brain pathways that also deal with language.
Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, studies the relationship between music and language and how humans and other species process rhythm. He was the keynote speaker at a Northeast Music Cognition Group semiannual meeting in November where he spoke about the future of the field of music psychology. Having played the clarinet for years, Patel was drawn to the field by his love of both biology and music.
“Music goes back to the ancients,” he says, “but why do we have it and why are we so moved by it emotionally? It is such a striking part of human culture and it builds on other things our brains do.”
The results from the research are as varied as the studies themselves. From understanding that the best way to learn a musical piece is to look at the “big picture” first rather than learning each piece mechanically to understanding how music helps stroke victims recover to discovering that we have more in common with parrots than with apes when it comes to recognizing rhythm, the findings cover a wide gamut of behavior and biology.
But the link between the research and application can be slow in coming. Translating research to therapeutic practice and mining the knowledge of those on the front lines, is a necessary next step, says Patel. Music therapy, which uses evidence-based music interventions in a therapeutic setting, has been running a parallel course to music psychology in understanding the ways that humans interact with and respond to music.
“Music therapy is a well-established field,” says Patel, “and what’s needed is some bridge building between the people in the labs and in the field.”
It’s an exciting field, ever expanding and with many avenues still to be explored from looking at musical prodigies as they age or studying the empathy that music can engender to working out how the brain reacts to different styles of music or different instruments.
“There are a lot of different directions this work could go,” says Loui, whose research makes use of tools like electrophysiology, neuroimaging, and noninvasive brain stimulation. “We are getting to a point where technology is good enough to really tackle all these questions.”
By Catherine Robertson Souter