Music Tech

The State of Music Psychology

MusicGuest post by Diana Hereld
(@christypaffgen) for, a music and tech think tank. 

The psychological conversation surrounding music has boomed.

In a few short years, the studies of music therapy and the applied neuroscience of music have hugely invaded the mainstream — the question is, why? As many
publications have noted, the initiative that music may be used in rehabilitation
has been around for a century or more. What then has catalyzed the influx of media coverage in the last few years? One reason may simply be that as the
success of these techniques become popularized via persons in the public eye, many of us are beginning to understand that music may be used for far more
than we had ever imagined.

It was less than a year ago that NPR released the news story on the effectiveness and use of singing therapy on stroke patients. You may recall the
Gabrielle Giffords story with regard to her suffering major brain trauma and later a surprising recovery. It is through the sharing of success stories such
as this via the media that the infusion of music, psychology, and neuroscience are coming to light.

Medical resilience, however, is only one facet of this field. In addition to all of the rehabilitative functions music is being found to support, there
exist many others. For the music industry, it may prove profitable to look toward music psychology as a potential market sector. Companies such as
Prescriptive Music develop “branded-music” programming which they believe can increase sales.

Marketing through music is a relatively new advertising theme. That being said, experts in neuroscience and emotion studies are being called upon more and
more as sales consultants in a variety of venues including hotels, restaurants, and major retailers. Previous studies have shown increases in sales in
resultants when the right music is carefully selected;

one test

conducted by marketing professor Ronald E. Milliman exhibited an 11.6% sales increase when up-tempo music was played during the lunch hour.

What does this mean for the music industry? Is it possible that via the study of our decision making, analysts will be able to discern the types of music
that affect consumer behavior in a wide variety of markets? has asked Dr. Victoria Williamson, a music psychology lecturer and course
co-director on the “Music, Mind, and Brain” program at Goldsmiths, University of London, for her take on these questions.

* * *

Fifty years ago, people might appear at a loss if you mentioned "music psychology," or simply the act of synthesizing music and neuroscience, or music
and psychology. What exactly is this field, and how has it become a mainstream topic in recent years?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: People are still often a little lost when you mention music and psychology/neuroscience together although it is of course more
well-known now than it was fifty years ago. I come from a psychological interest and I wrote an article called "Thank You for the Music” a few years ago
that outlined the kind of things that are studied in this field and why. Essentially, music is a universal human activity whether we chose to play or to
listen. Therefore, as a psychologist, music is my chosen tool for learning more about the human mind and behavior. Studying the way we perceive, process,
generate, and respond to music can therefore tell us something unique about what it means to be human.

What are some of the field’s most impacting accomplishments?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: Tricky one. I like to think that using music in psychological paradigms has taught us a great deal about how we learn both as
babies and adults, how our memories work (or don't work sometimes!) and how our emotions can impact on cognition. Using music in brain imaging has revealed
a lot about the activity of the mind both when we are listening to sounds and when we are simply thinking about them. And there are a number of cases, such
as with autism, where studying music psychology has given us new insights into different people's worlds. The new horizon for music psychology, which is
just beginning to be touched upon, is the power of music to help us deal with both everyday and extraordinary life situations.

Along with all of the neurological and therapeutic implications of the field, knowledge is become wider spread of the power of music to influence the
minds and behavior of consumers. These behaviors can obviously affect their purchasing decisions, inside and outside of the music industry. Who is
driving this research? Is there market incentive from large corporations?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: I can only answer for the UK, but this is actually a relatively small field of research with few published papers. It is hard to
do genuine consumer research because it requires long-term and effective collaboration between academia and industry, which can be tricky to manage from
both sides. The situation may change in the future but in most cases commercial interests are happy to learn from the music psychology that has been
conducted in more controlled conditions and extrapolate the findings to their own environments.

One important point I want to make here is that when you talk about the influence of music it should be clear that there is no evidence that I know of that
music can make people want to do something they do not want to do. Music has a subtle influence that works in combination with all the other factors in the
environment. It is no magic bullet.

As a leading researcher in the field, what are some of the long-term goals this field hopes to accomplish? Do you think music psychology has the
potential to become a major sector in the music industry?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: My long term aim is to learn more about the human mind and behavior by studying how we interact with music. From this level of
understanding will come the tools for improved communication, wellbeing, and happiness. I think the music industry could learn a lot from interacting with
music psychologists and of course vice versa. Most music psychologists (including me) know very little about the process by which music is produced as a
commercial product and it would be really interesting to know more about how decisions are made, artists are chosen, and end products compiled. I think the
potential is there for many exciting collaborations that will reveal more about how and why we are such a musical animal.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Diana Hereld (@christypaffgen) is a Los Angeles based music psychology and neuroscience researcher. She blogs at As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears. is founded and edited by Kyle Bylin of Live Nation Labs. If you would like to contribute a post to be featured on the site, please reach out.

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  1. This article reminds me of my studies for my degree in counseling. We had a rather unconventional professor who required us to study jazz composition, physics and traditional Eastern religions in addition to psych theory.
    I am very encouraged to see that science is catching up to what many practitioners intuitively know and/or practice regularly.
    Music is used in sports psychology, art therapy, yoga, by writers to help them get into the ‘zone’, (the space between the notes) much like what those schooled in music, Buddhism and/or physics learn that it is within these spaces physically and neurologically that one gains clarity, focus, joy, and release from pain and anxiety.
    There is much to be gained by employing music (and paying artists their due) to promote peace, calm and healing in this world as well as near infinite commercial potential. -How many others out there can attest to be driven from a retail environment because of terrible, awful, no good music, (and the Holiday season frankly takes the prize for the worst of the worst.) Some songs just need to be put to rest in a shallow grave, for forever.
    Great article and thank you!

  2. For most of us in the creative fields, the introduction of a more empirical approach to composition and design can feel limiting. But science can actually help inform our creative choices. In fact, research sometimes validates our instincts – helping us understand that there often is a connection between universal themes and the way our brains are reacting to certain combinations of sounds, rhythms, melodies, etc.
    Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen, who is another co-director of the Goldsmiths program, has been focusing on the use of music in the context of advertising, with some interesting results. It’s a growing field – one that I think will continue to grow exponentially in the years ahead – and one that could be an interesting career option that isn’t typically thought of as part of the “music business.”
    You can find out more about Müllensiefen’s recent work here:

  3. Thank you both! And thanks for reminding me of Daniel’s work. I will be reading at the MMB program this Fall, and look very forward to working under them both.

  4. I hope these studies are not merely co-opted by the ‘save music in our schools’ groups but rather become a rally cry for music education to become increasingly more important to the general health and well being of everyone – especially adults. We can create employment for current and future music teachers who until now have relied on dwindling ‘in-school’ programs/budgets. The time is right for a paradigm shift in our profession – a move away from academia and into the private sector.

  5. Music and Emotions
    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.
    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.
    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.
    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:
    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek

  6. I would tend to disagree that emotion cannot be measured. Although consciousness cannot, emotion is measured often: quantitatively through fMRI, EEG and other forms of biofeedback, and qualitatively through varied measures such as self-report. For the former I recommend the extensive work Dr. David Huron, and the latter, Dr. Andrea Halpern.

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