The first woman to be awarded PhD at Durham was music psychologist

In 1936, Clara Robertson, who was 28 years old at the time, was the first woman to defend her doctoral thesis at Durham University. The title boldly stated “The psychology of musical appreciation: an analysis of the bases and nature of the experience of listening to music“, and her examiners, Dr C. S. Myers and Mr P. A. Scholes, were eminent scholars from London. The topic would have been a relevant research area sixty to eighty years later, but in the thirties, only a handful of scholars had tackled anything that could be regarded as related to this topic.

As a scholar working on related areas of music perception and emotions induced by music, I am fascinated to learn about the pioneering work she did nearly 85 years ago at Durham. I am even more pleased to note that this field has consistently been in the hands of exceptional women; In the 1930s, Kate Hevner, who worked at the University of Minnesota, set the bar high for music and emotion research by publishing a string of seminal studies about what music can express (1935) and how different cues of music – such as mode, tempo or register – contribute to these emotions (1936, and 1937). She was not the only woman that developed empirical studies of music; in fact, the late 1970s and 1980s field of music psychology was spearheaded by Diana Deutsch, Lola Cuddy, Carol Krumhansl, and Sandra Trehub, who not only shaped the field through their studies, but took the initiative of creating societies and journals that established the field in the 1980s.

But let’s move back to the thirties and Clara Robertson’s PhD research. Clara wrote the dissertation in Adelaide, Australia, where she continued her career as a music critic. In her dissertation, she tackled a fundamental question of music that sits firmly between emotions, aesthetics and musical ability. The core idea was to define an aesthetic listening, which encompasses its meaning and beauty, and explain how it is shaped by experience. To quote her on the aims,

“It is my endeavour to show that musical listening in its highest form, aesthetic contemplation, depends on the subject’s ability to maintain an intellectual grasp of the music as music.”

Robertson, 1936, p. 3

She saw aesthetic listening as an intellectual process and not merely an emotional or a physical reaction to the music, or a memory of it. She acknowledges that much of the listening is not dependent on the qualities of music itself but shaped by our experiences and dispositions. She outlines these factors as temperament, our cognitive capacity, current mood, attitude and attention. These can be also regarded as some of the key variables of the contemporary music psychology. Her take on these is based on reading literature (Helmholtz, Hanslick, and Schoen) and using her intuition and perceptive account of her own listening experiences to determine how the variables are likely to influence aesthetic listening. In several places, she gives colourful personal recollections of experiences where the different factors gripped her while listening to music.

There are numerous ideas that resonate with contemporary research. One is the role of familiarity and novelty of music, where Clara Robertson argues that even really familiar music does not lose its charm and ability to evoke pleasure with repetition. This same observation is in fact part of the theory put forward by David Huron (2006). Elisabeth Margulis has recently published a whole book about the appeal of repetition (2014). Robertson also accounts how listening and performing are entirely different processes, and also acknowledges our limited capacity to take in all the possible nuances of the music in one listening, and how our bodies reacts to music such as breathing, blood pressure and kinaesthetic activity and “jigging the foot”. She interprets these as feeling-tone responses to music, which are not really what aesthetic listening is all about. She also condemns the purely sensory appeal of music as a secondary for aesthetic listening. Her examples of Wagner’s music with lush harmonies and storm-effects in “Overture to the Flying Dutchman” and the march from “Tannhäuser” provide entertaining reading and make the point eloquently. Her way of building the argument is to frame the question with literature and also to propose how a child, a non-musician, and musician would appreciate the passages of music in different ways. This, of course, illustrates how the acquisition of musical competence is the key to aesthetic appreciation, which later on has grown into developmental psychology of music. She also skilfully separates the emotional expression of the composer, performer and the listeners (a regular trick done by all musicologists and music psychologists alike).

Her values in music are conventional, and modern music is argued in the pages of the thesis to be pushing the natural ways Western music has operated for hundreds of years. For instance, she defends the Western tonality by referring to the nature of scales and acoustics, relying on Helmholtz work on acoustics and scales, and this is, in fact, an operation to state that the classical Western tonality is fundamentally satisfying; at least for those accultured in that system. She does explain how dodecaphony (a system where 12 different pitch-classes are used such as in the music of Anton Webern) requires reorientation and “appears simple on paper, but is difficult to understand through the ear” (p. 115). Also, she systematically covers all elements of music (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, structure, timbre, texture) – some of which had very little information to draw from in the 1930s.

If Clara Robertson would have been around today, she would have quickly realised that the questions are not entirely different despite progress in the empirical verification of concepts and issues. She would have been surprised to see the surge of neuroscience of music from 1990s onwards and how musical traditions from other cultures have gained more attention relative to Western art music. But she would have recognised many of the fashionable themes (embodiment, agency, personification, attention, aesthetic experiences, emotions) and probably would have been critical of contemporary research about musical abilities, which mainly rely on the capability of discriminating different elements of music, and leave aesthetic attitude and appreciation usually uncharted.

Newspaper photo of Clara Robertson,
probably from her BA degree.

She received her degree in the Chapter House at Durham Cathedral. On that day, only 2 PhDs were awarded, although seven Doctors of Medicine were also awarded in the same afternoon. The Durham Advertiser reported that the “seat was occupied, and colour was lent to a picturesque scene by the scarlet and ermine of the academic robes…”. After gaining the doctorate, she became the first music critic in Australia.

Happy Women’s day!

P.S. The whole thesis can be found at Durham Library Digital collections, see etheses.dur.ac.uk/8347/

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