The two (or more) hats of a music psychologist: Communicating research to different disciplinary audiences

This post picks up on a recurring theme I’ve written about a couple times now, which is the unique challenges one faces when working in an area that falls ‘between’ traditional disciplines. Some of the challenges that arise in music psychology may be due to the fact that it is a relatively less ‘established’ discipline; although researchers have been doing work that could be considered ‘music psychology research’ for well over a century, music psychology has not fully established itself as a universally recognised subfield of either music or psychology. To give a counterexample, although music historians may use a range of methods and approaches that cross between those used by musicians and other types of historians, music history is widely accepted as a subject that ‘belongs’ in a music department. Similarly, when browsing academic staff lists of music departments at reputable universities, one would be shocked not to find any music historian listed, but not finding a music psychologist on the list would not typically raise any eyebrows (and similarly for psychology departments). Another issue is the arts/sciences divide that is a highly common, traditional way of dividing up schools/faculties within a university; music psychologists who find themselves placed into an ‘Arts’ Faculty or a ‘Sciences’ Faculty will either way be faced with various logistical problems that result from working in a discipline that combines aspects of both arts and sciences research.

As a music psychologist, I have worked in both psychology and music departments, and regularly go back and forth between presenting my research (in written and oral forms) for both psychologist and musician audiences. In the following sections of this post I explore some thoughts on the challenges one faces as a music psychologist when tasked with presenting research to either of these audiences. Several of the issues highlighted below will likely be quite familiar to those already working in this interdisciplinary field, but I hope these ideas may be of use to early career researchers just starting out in this area, or may provide some new perspectives to those already familiar with these issues.

Presenting research to an audience of psychologists

When writing an article for submission to a general psychology journal, one of the main things I make sure to address is the question of “why music?” That is, psychologists often want to know why you would be studying such a ‘messy’ subject as music, rather than a more ‘traditional’ subject like visual attention or face perception. I often have to spell out quite explicitly why studying music can provide a new or unique insight on a particular aspect of human cognition, whether that be memory, time perception, etc. Although some psychologist reviewers are completely accepting of music psychology as a legitimate subdomain of inquiry, others may see it as a niche area that focuses on a ‘hobby’, and may need convincing that research on music can still be done in a systematic way to reveal important insights on aspects of human perception and cognition. In some ways this need to answer the “why music?” question is a bit absurd, given that music has been found to exist in every known human culture on earth, with regular daily exposure and substantial value placed on it in many societies; it’s very unlikely these same reviewers would ask the question “why language?” in response to an article that reports a series of studies on speech perception. However, until music psychology becomes more widely accepted within the psychology community, it seems advisable to continue to be very clear in explaining why studying responses to music can be of constructive value from providing new insights in an array of areas, from auditory perception to joint action, sensorimotor integration, emotion, imagination, and aesthetics. In some ways, perhaps this constant need to justify one’s reasons for studying music is actually a good thing—it requires us to think critically about why our research matters, and more specifically, why music plays such an important role in what it means to be human.

Presenting research to an audience of musicians

On the other hand, when writing or presenting to an audience of music scholars, there is, of course, very little need to explain why music is the subject of interest. Instead, perhaps a primary pertinent question is “why psychology?”, or more generally “why science?” In some ways, the very idea of trying to make generalisations about how people respond to or interact with ‘music’ as a whole is in complete opposition to the detailed and in-depth work many scholars are doing in analysing single pieces of music, or examining the work of a particular composer in a particular style during a particular period. Part of the solution here may be to be particularly careful about making sweeping generalisations about effects of ‘music’, by qualifying what type of music you have actually studied (e.g., “we used chart-topping pop music from the last two decades, so the conclusions drawn here may or may not generalise to other music styles”). This is something I also come across occasionally in published work (often written by general psychologists, rather than musicians) and find quite annoying—for example, imagine reading a paper saying some ‘background music’ was played that improved aspects of cognition, but the details on what this ‘background music’ actually comprised are thin or entirely non-existent. A second, broader issue that can arise is the general suspicion some musicians still carry around the idea of investigating music from a scientific perspective. Although I am pleased to say I personally have not come across many lately, there are likely still many people out there who think that trying to understand music from a scientific perspective will somehow take away the sense of mystery and awe around the creation and performance of a beautiful piece of music. In some ways this bears parallels to the idea that ‘talent’ is something that simply magically appears in accomplished musicians, without taking into consideration the fact that even the most ‘talented’ musician has likely spent thousands of hours meticulously practicing their instrument; indeed, it has been demonstrated that educational professionals are almost twice as likely to believe that ‘talent’ is required to play music in comparison to playing chess or performing surgery (Davis, 1994, cited in Thompson, 2009). Therefore it may need to be made clear to such critics that breaking down our responses to music into their component processes—for instance to understand how people perceive rhythms and harmonies or mentally segment music—is no less reducing the ‘magic’ of hearing an expertly performed symphony than research on colour perception, object recognition, and edge detection is reducing our appreciation of famous paintings.


Here, I have presented just a brief summary of some of the challenges that arise in presenting music psychology research to different disciplinary audiences. Despite certain difficulties that inevitably arise from combining insights from two disciplines, perhaps this need to switch focus between different audiences is actually beneficial—it may force us to take a broader perspective on our work, and ensure that both the musical and psychological aspects of our research are well-informed and rigorously implemented. Being able to do research that is well received by both audiences may therefore be something to aspire to as a discipline.

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