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The State of Music Psychology

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Guest post by Diana Hereld (@christypaffgen) for sidewinder.fm, 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? Sidewinder.fm 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.


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