Music psychology can be seen as a branch of both psychology and musicology. It is the study of humans and their interactions with music along with the behaviors that are associated with it. Music psychology is related to the fields of human development, human interaction, music performance, composition, education, human experience, and human behavior. In the early days of the study, music psychology focused on why music theory is created the way it is. For example, why are chords built as they are and how does the sound effect a human.
An article written by Robert Gjerdingen explains this best stating "since at least the seventeenth century, proponents of one or another theory of music have frequently used the psychology of music as a touchstone. They assert propositions in the general form of “musical relationship has a valuation because there exists a relevant phenomenon or principle in the psychology of music.” For example, Riemann could be viewed as having asserted that “harmonic relationships based on progressions of a major third or perfect fifth between the chordal ‘roots’ have the qualities of being directly intelligible and foundational because Helmholtz and other physiologists have shown that the frequency analysis of the inner ear privileges these intervals.” Developments in the psychology of music thus shift and reestablish the ground on which are based propositions in the theory of music" (Gjerdingen).
The early studies of music psychology were focused on the ear, the sound, or the vibrations that music produced and how that shaped humans. Today, studies have shifted to focus on music as a form of cognition (Gjerdingen). This idea of music producing feelings is dated back to the early 1600s and to a philosopher by the name of Sir Francis Bacon. In the same article Gjerdingen explains this new idea that was brought about in 1605.
"The philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in his Advancement of Learning (1605), he departs from the long canonist tradition of music as a science of numerical relationship and focuses instead on music as both sensation and a mode of conveying ideas or feelings. Though the schoolchild of today will likely say that music is “about feelings,” the idea was not a cliché in 1605" (Gjerdingen). The philosopher's ideas sparked the change in studies of music. His program is now known as British empiricism (Gjerdingen). And his work began the studies on how music can be highly important to our mental lives.
Music psychologists study many areas of the human life and how music plays a role in it. Examples of this are as follows:
- How music effects learning styles
- Memory recollection
- Music and Alzheimer's disease
- Music Therapy
- Emotional connections to music
- Studies of music and children's behavior
and many, many more.
Unlike the other fields of psychology music psychology is able to find more commonalities between cultures than differences. Because music is at the center of many religious practices and other cultural standards it can aid to define a civilization or behavior of a group of people. It is the link between the masses. Music can transform and build unlike anything else. Music breaks barriers of language and other differences. It unites people, cultures, and worlds.
In studying how music can define culture the book, Music, Imagination, and Culture was brought to my attention. It was written by Nicholas Cook and he says that music is a way to define culture and bind civilizations. He also speaks about the ideas of music as more than just a group of cords and sounds but it is an outlet for people and a way to express emotion. "It is of course a general phenomenon, and not one confined to music, that words and images rarely if ever express quite what they are meant to. They distort the experiences that they are intended to represent, either through carrying false or unintended meanings with them or through leaving unexpressed the finer shades of what was intended. But in the case of music the problem of experience and its representation is so pressing and so specific that some theorists have questioned the degree to which words can be regarded as capable of expressing musical experiences at all" (Cook).
Music psychologists try to understand the necessity humans find in spending time, money, and emotions on music. Why is music so relevant to us and why is it so important in our world? Is it because of social norms? Is our fascination a form of evolution? And, is music having negative effects on society? Also discussed is why we have physical responses to the sounds we hear in songs.
"A common feature of musical experience for many people is the occurrence of “thrills”. One type of thrill is a pleasant physical sensation often experienced as a “shiver” or a “tingle” running from the nape of the neck down the spine. Such sensations are usually accompanied by heightened emotion" (Sloboda).
Here's an example of this. This piece is from the musical Wicked which many are familiar with. As you listen see if you have a physical reaction to the music or if it brings on some type of emotion. I especially want to focus towards the end of the piece. With so much happening, did you feel like you were in sync with the music? Did it speak to you in anyway? The link will open in a new window but the video is not necessary to watch, just listen. And, if you'd like you can skip ahead to 4:00.