Psychology and the music practitioner

Williamon, A. and Thompson, S. (2004) Psychology and the music practitioner. In: The Music Practitioner: Research for the Music Performer, Teacher and Listener. Ashgate, Abingdon, pp. 9-26. ISBN 9781315085807


As a seemingly universal human behaviour, the practice of making and listening to music has long been the subject of psychological enquiry (see, for example, Seashore, 1910, 1912, 1919; Bartholomew, 1934). The accomplished music practitioner displays a wide range of ‘psychological’ skills that are of interest to psychologists working within a number of different sub-disciplines. Perhaps as a result of music’s multi-faceted nature, however, it is only over the last 30 years or so that psychology of music has emerged as a unified field of study, with the appearance of four discipline-specific journals (Psychology of Music in 1973, Psychomusicology in 1982, Music Perception in 1983 and Musicæ Scientiæ in 1997) and a host of international societies spanning several continents. In this chapter, we aim to highlight reasons for and benefits of this emergent unification and to demonstrate how practitioners can potentially use the methods of modern psychology to further their understanding of the mental and physical demands of music practice and performance. We do so, first, by placing music psychology in context, providing a general overview of psychology and some of its methodological limitations. Secondly, we explore why psychologists are interested in music and why music practitioners might be interested in psychology. Finally, we detail two ways in which psychologists have investigated music practice and performance – namely, by systematically observing musicians as they practice and perform and by asking them about their experiences. By doing so, we hope to encourage music practitioners to explore the possibilities of employing these methods for themselves.

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