The Psychology of Music

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How Might the Psychology of Music Support a Piano Practicing and Performance?


The relationship that runs between psychology and music is a characteristic of that falls between new science and the already established discipline. European music theory has quite an old tradition dating back to the time of Pythagoras. The philosophical underpinnings of this tradition were established in ancient times but still, exist today. The major characteristic of this tradition is the rationalism that goes with it. Contrary to the scientific disciplines, the development of music theories over the last few centuries has not been growing empirically. Rather, while composers have constantly experimented with new ways of expression, music theorists, on the whole, have been system builders seeking to justify their existing compositional practice. The music concept has essentially been the product of the processing mechanisms and thus related to psychology as rarely been to entertainment.

There are quite a number of reasons for the adoption of this rationalistic stance, but most of them can no longer be applied to the current situation. One reason was the paucity of knowledge regarding the characteristic of sound. It is understandable that the failure to characterize a physical stimulus in music should have inhibited the growth of theories relating to how the stimulus is processed. Another reason was the poor stimulus control, which made experimentation quite a hard task. One more reason was the lack of appropriate operational techniques with which the study of probabilistic phenomena could be possible. However, there is one argument, which still can be applied today. It lies in the peculiar qualities of music itself. There are no clearly set external criteria that enhance delimitation between music content and non-music content, or between what is called good music and bad music. In addition, it is clear that the prior experience of people influences the way they perceive music (Martin, Mortiz & Hall 1999). Thus, the significance of psychological experimentation to the existing musical theory requires a careful definition.

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In this chapter, a review of some notable developments in music from the historical point of view is carried out. A number of issues that are studied in contemporary music both by music theorists and psychologists will be examined. Finally, the role of psychology is discussed in music theory.

Historical Perspective

Music speculations may be traced back to the ancient times, but the beginning of Western music theory is generally reported to have been laid by Pythagoras at around 570-497 B.C. He was mostly concerned with the study of musical intervals. He identified the musical consonances of the octave, fifth, and fourth with their numerical ratios as 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4. He also established that the pitch of any vibrating string varies inversely with its length.

However, Pythagoras and his students lost faith in the empirical methods and rather attempted to explain all musical phenomena in terms of their numerical relationships.

According to Pythagoras followers’, music ought to be analyzed solely by concentrating on its numerical relationships as characterized since Pythagorean times. As follows from their view, mathematics is held to offer an ideal that can only be imitated by a world of sense-perception. Experiments and their procedures were thus rendered irrelevant; when the results of such experiments were in accordance with theory, they became redundant.

At the same time, if the above results had some conflict with theory, the theories must have been wrongly conceived at first. Stemming from the geometrical approach of Pythagoreans, various attempts to create the entire musical system through mathematical deduction from the few sources of established musical facts have been made. Most importantly, this approach is derived from the wrong analogy in geometry (Sanderson, DiNardo, & Barlow 1990). In Euclidean geometry, the theory begins with some axioms which are thought to be self-evident. These axioms show the deduction at theorems that are not self-evident in themselves. However, it is not illogical to assume that we can proceed by deduction from one fact to another musical fact. Categorically, musical facts are only used as a base of formulating hypotheses on further musical facts, which need a detailed empirical verification.

Another reliable influence on musical theory, which stemmed up from the Pythagoreans, was the belief that the ultimate interpretation of musical phenomena originates from physics. The belief prevailed until the Copernican revolution. This belief took the assumption that music results from a reflection of sounds that are produced by heavenly bodies. This was explained by Aristotle in De Caelo. According to Aristotle,

the movement of bodies of astronomical size must produce some noise because, on earth, the movement of such objects of inferior size and speed has that effect. Such effect should also be achieved with the space objects, such as the sun and moon, and all the stars, in their large numbers are moving so fast. How can these immensely great objects fail to produce a sound? Starting from this argument and the observation that their speeds are at the same rate with musical concordances, their assertion is that sound gives forth a circular motion of the stars in a harmony.

Pythagorean Theory of the Harmony of the Spheres

According to the Pythagorean view of the universe, the relative distances of heavenly bodies to each other are placed together with the musical intervals they form. Therefore, it was observed that the distance between the Moon and the Earth formed a whole tone. The distance from the Moon to Mercury formed a semitone; from Mercury to Venus – a semitone; from Venus to the Sun – a tone and a semitone; from Sun to Mars – another whole tone; from Mars to Jupiter – a semitone; from Saturn to Jupiter – a semitone; and finally from Saturn to the Supreme Heaven – another semitone. It is important to note that the entire distance from the Earth to the Supreme Heaven formed a full octave.

This theory of the Harmony of the Spheres was quite attractive as it provided answers to various fundamental questions about the field of music. The first question was why music exists, and the answer stated that it serves as a reflector of the Divine Harmony. The second question was why some musical intervals strike us pleasingly while others fail, and the answer to this question stated that the consonances are the intervals that are present in the Divine Harmony. In addition, the theory had a normative value as it provided boundary conditions to separate music from non-music components.

The main problem with this theory that puzzled the ancient Greeks philosophers was the reason why we cannot hear the harmony produced by the space bodies. One explanation to this question was suggested by one Censorinus, a philosophe. He claimed that the intensity of sound is too loud as to cause deafness (Salmon & Meyer 1992). Aristotle described an alternative view, though he did not endorse it: since this sound is with us from birth it is only perceived in contrast to silence, and we are not aware of its existence. However, none of these perceptions were considered satisfactory.

The theory provides the strongest link to all music, astronomy and mathematics studies with the impact on the scientific part of the higher education program developing the Quadrivium of other “related studies” like astronomy, music, geometry, and arithmetics. The Quadrivium persistence throughout the sixteenth century was accountable for the interaction between various disciplines.

Parallel to the scientific advances in regards to the physical qualities of sound, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were particularly active in experiments with the new techniques. A need for a modern theoretical synthesis to justify the prevailing musical practices and to link it with newly established scientific knowledge arose. This was achieved by one composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). His systematization formed the basis of the ancient harmonic theory as we currently recognize it. Through a clear analysis of the compositions of his predecessors and by joining the results of his own musical investigations, Rameau arrived at important laws and concepts such as the invertibility of chords, the root progression chords, generation of a chord by its root, among others.

In some sense, Rameau’s synthesis can be regarded as a great psychological achievement, which he used for his body of data, the music of common practice formulated as a viable theory of abstract structure in music. However, he disregarded music as a product of the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms. Rather, true to tradition, he saw the need to justify this system in terms of a unitary physical principle. This was found in the recently discovered phenomenon of the overtone series that invoked a self-evident principle, from which the attempt to derive the whole musical system by mathematical deduction was set.

Even though his attempts to manipulate the numerical ratios did not succeed and involved him in a mass of contradictions and inconsistencies. His approach laid the foundation for a new study of numbers in music where the overtone series displaced the Harmony of the Spheres as the best explanatory device (Palisca 1961).

One of the greatest musical theorists of the nineteenth century was known as Hermann von Helmholtz (1831-1894). His book On the Sensations of Tone (1885/1954) made an important reading until today. He clearly saw that the musical phenomena and made an explanation in terms of its processing mechanisms to the listener. He carried out some important experiments on the perception of pitch, a combination of tones, beats and consonance and dissonance. In addition, he speculated concerns on the nature of high-level cognitive mechanisms that underline the musical perceptions although he lacked the necessary technical resources to clearly investigate those mechanisms experimentally.

At the end of the twentieth century, technology advanced and brought about the uprise of scientists who, for the first time in history, investigated the auditory phenomena under controlled conditions. This became the beginning of a science of psychoacoustics which was thus established. However, the stimuli of sound stimuli that could be generated precisely were limited in scope. It became possible to perform careful measurements on an auditory threshold phenomenon and to devise psychophysical scales of pitch and loudness as the measurable properties of sound. However, it was still difficult to construct a sound sequential pattern of tones under strictly controlled conditions or rather to generate tones with specific time-varying spectra. Thus, psychoacousticians were unable to fully support the issue they studied for a long time and addressed themselves in a manner that appeared of less concern to musicians. The musicians found the perceptual property of simple auditory stimuli isolated or of little theoretical interest.

Psychoacoustics was felt by musicians as variance with their intuition and experience. One notable example is the Mel-scale for pitch. This scale was designated as equal intervals were made unequal on the musical scale and consequently, equal musical intervals were designated as totally unequal on the Mel-scale. Thus, it appeared to a number of musicians that, however, controlled, the psychoacoustical experiments could be, they were always leading to incorrect conclusions. Rather than criticizing these inferences on home ground, musicians referred them as concrete evidence that the scientific methodologies were inappropriate to study music.

The science of psychoacoustics continued to develop with a narrow focus on stimulus parameters; on the other hand, music theorists were faced with a vast increase in the complexity of the music they attempted to explain. First, the issue of tonality developed in concept and extended it to include the new complexities. Nevertheless, the latter concept had to be kept aside since it turned dubious whether the notion of tonic served as a useful concept for the new compositions. In the end, music theorists introduced a thorough search for a totally new theoretical framework in which they could compose.

Treatment of psychological musical disorders

Expressive therapies are founded on the predication that psychological healing is attainable through a creative process. Expressive Arts Therapy is defined as the practice of applying imagery, dance, storytelling, music, motion, drama and poetry in an integrated way to foster human development, growth, and healing (Lee 2002). The exclusive therapy includes Music Therapy and Guided Imagery Therapy often paired with Yoga or additional Meditational activities.

Music Therapy

There are potential benefits of this practice to overcome Music Performance Anxiety in a group setting (Montello, Coons, and Kantor 1990). As compared to the attention controls, the therapy developed in music decreasing stress and reducing self-destruction during performances both before and after the treatment. This experiment did not only support the claim that this Therapy is effective in decreasing Music Performance Anxiety, but it also inspires a greater sense of musicality.

Guided Imagery Therapy

Guided Imagery has also received similar consideration due to its potential benefits in the treatment of anxiety, specifically for athletes. This is a psycho-therapeutically designed method that employs a client’s internal imagery to unearth and resolve established emotional conflicts (Chinen & Battista 1996). In this therapy, the specialist guides the client through a chain of fantasies, dreams, and other related imaginary scenarios that address emotional disturbances. Imagery rehearsal by athletes is commonly preceded by relaxation techniques that aid the patient in relating the simulated performance with some sense of composure and calmness.

Visual-Motor Behavior Rehearsal (VMBR) is another procedure for imagery rehearsal that combines relaxation and imagery processes. In this therapy, relaxation always acts as a precursor to the imagery process. This method includes the following stages:

(i) relaxation,

(ii) imaginary practice,

(iii) use of imagery to strengthen psychological skills.

The relaxation step is followed by a conception of both performances in the given situation, and that of a particular skill in the context of stressful circumstance. In the VMBR approach to imagery and perception, it is exceptionally the same to the actual experience; this becomes more or less the same as dreams during sleep (Myers & Davis 2007). In contrast to Mental Practice, VMBR pursues to experience these events to the maximum capacity of the multisensory psyche.


Inderal is a synthetic medical process that competes with the beta-adrenergic stimulants such as adrenalin. Both anti-anxiety medications and beta-adrenoceptor-blocking drugs trigger the level of anxiety. However, the latter drugs are more successfully counter anxiety in those inexperienced in more cognitive and psychological symptoms like low social phobia, self-esteem, and general anxiety (Lehrer 1987).

The study that investigated the use of beta-blockers on-stage performers and musicians was conducted by Liden and Gottfries in 1974. Professional orchestra musicians who had somatic symptoms such as tension, tremor, and heart palpitations were treated with the beta-blocker alprenolol before the start of a concert performance. According to the self-rated assessment of anxiety, researchers concluded that the drug was successful to relieve tremor symptoms, palpitation, muscle tension, and increased concentration and focus to the performer.


These are drugs that are commonly used in the treatment of anxiety, dysphoria (prolonged depression) and muscle tension. In addition, they have also succeeded in treating general apprehension and gastrointestinal distress, as well as muscle tension. This medication communicates with the neural receptors in subcortical areas of the brain to increase the rate of activities. This, in turn, prevents the heightened arousal to some areas in the brain, such as the hippocampus, cerebellum, amygdala, and cortex. The chemical matter primarily affects the limbic system but due to its effect on the cerebellum, it also initiates full-body relaxation (Orman 2003).

Psychology in Music as a Support during the Preparation of a Piano Performance

Concurrent with Steptoe’s findings, Sloboda (1988) also found that the greatest arousal and quality of performance generally coincides with the basic public performance. In a pretest and posttest control group experimental model, he set out to determine whether there was a significant difference in the psychological and physiological responses in the levels of anxiety between non-jury and jury performance conditions. The data collected suggested that there was a significant increase in heart rate and the STAI scores between jury and non-jury conditions.

However, no significant difference was found between either the open or double-blind jury settings. Therefore, inferences could then be deduced that a situation of consequence, could be a triggering factor in stimulating music performance anxiety regardless of the situational specifics,

Similarly, Hargreaves (1986) found that when comparing the rates of the heartbeat of subjects in both a piano lesson and the recital performance condition, there were notable increases in heart rate between the two settings. The recital performance was proven and, more specifically, between the moments slightly before performing and physically playing the recital work. Correlations between self-esteem and both states and trait anxiety were revealed. Many of the subjects (between 85% and 95%) reported a significant increase in fear of making mistakes in front of the audience as the primary cause of their anxiety.

The desire to avoid negative evaluation fuels the concept of perfectionism. This implies a personal attribute which advantages in practice rarely outweigh the catastrophe it influences onstage. Therefore, as a classical musician seldom deters from the written mark to improvise and since he is expected to play free of inaccuracies, a number of researchers theorize that musicians and artists suffer from music performance anxiety. This happens largely due to the act of exerting too much effort or, quite the contrary, being overwhelmed by the caliber of success. This requires the musicians to maintain and thus avoid it. In this way, music performance anxiety turns to be a defense mechanism to purposely neutralize the development of a musician’s career. Additionally, strenuous physical efforts result in coordination issues that challenge the level of dependency of a musician’s performance in a stressful situation (Nagel, Himle & Papsdorf 1989). This may inspire the habit of catastrophizing behavior closely linked to error count contrary to its emphasis on flawlessness, and the disastrous consequences it anticipates should be upheld.

In conjunction with fierce competition and the regular subjection to assessment, it comes as no surprise that artists experience more stage-related stress and tend to be more distressed by performance anxiety than other professions. A larger proportion of both professional vocalists and classical instrumentalists have reported performance anxiety that was severe enough to interfere with both their social lives and careers (James 1998; Kemenade 1995). Others have even turned to drug and alcohol abuse in an attempt to cope with their symptoms (Brugues 2001).

However, it is interesting to note that some musicians with high levels of nervousness and apprehension related to performance tend to avoid strategies necessary to alleviate their anxiety. Considering the excoriation often associated with mental and psychological disturbances, perhaps, this averting behavior could be ascribed to the uneasiness posed by raising such issues. As initially mentioned, some performers view performance anxiety as an indicator of personal weakness, a qualifier of “bad musicianship”. Participants in previous studies agreed that, even though stage nerves lead to the natural occurrence in many performers, the stigma of music performance anxiety persists.

One musician commented:

I don’t think Music Performance Anxiety is formally addressed in the curriculum within a conservatory environment. It is as if there is a certain stigma about suggesting that there is some weakness in a person as a performer or musician if they feel affected by it. So much of the pre-performance aspect is left in the hands of the individual.

According to Ryan (1998), the participants attributed the problem’s pertinently to a lack of teacher-mentorship intervention. He concluded that the issue of performance anxiety was simple if the administrations wanted to involve themselves with or acknowledge it as an issue worthy of their attention. Given the competitive state of the field, some music instructors and professors may simply consider MPA a necessary component of evolutionary applicable in “survival of the fittest”. This situation favors those who are more capable of success by naturally adjusting their thinking to the demands of the profession (Montello, Coons & Kantor 1990). Other faculties in the same department may have been exposed to similar pressure performance situations so frequent and at such an early age that the inferiority-based anxiety is unknown. Musicians with a long performance history report less anxiety than amateurs.

In any of the above cases, the prioritization of equipment in music concentrated with performance skill geared on where conservatories are founded. Therefore, anxiety management in the stage should be more highly emphasized (Roland & Wilson 1993). The inclusion of specialized advisors on the staff of music institutions was done for the sake of counseling performance anxiety to be a valuable means of ensuring each musical student’s potential is correctly realized.

Since the symptoms of physiological anxiety are triggered by a psychological upset in the first place, therapies based on behavioral restructuring provide an appropriate starting point when discussing music performance anxiety treatments.

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