What is Music Psychology?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Music psychology is regarded both as a branch of musicology and a form of complementary psychology studies. It examines the effect of music on people, on both an individual and societal level. Now formally studied at several universities, music psychology has become a fascinating branch of science, still relatively new in its testing and impact.

Music psychology studies the effect of music on humans.
Music psychology studies the effect of music on humans.

Possibly without exception, human culture involves music. Whether through chanting, percussion, vocal or created instruments, music is one of the few near-universal constants of society. In most industrialized nations, music is an everyday experience: in commercial jingles or in elevators, playing on radios and iPods, civilization is almost entirely surrounded by music. Clearly, on a cultural level, music is important to humans. The study of music psychology attempts to determine what mental and physical effects music has on humans, and if certain psychological conditions can be altered or created by the application of some forms of music.

The human brain is able react to tonality, rhythmic patters and learned musical practices.
The human brain is able react to tonality, rhythmic patters and learned musical practices.

Music psychology is a broad field, combining elements of traditional music science with applied psychology studies, cultural anthropology, and the study of cognition, among other disciplines. Some of the areas currently studied involve the effects of music rituals such as concerts, psychological reasons for musical preferences, and the study of musical performance. Each of these areas can tell researchers a bit about the effects of music on people, and give clues into the importance of music to the brain.

Cultural anthropology examines how music and other performing arts impacts the psychology of a society.
Cultural anthropology examines how music and other performing arts impacts the psychology of a society.

Some people actively use music for its stimulating or relaxing effects. Drivers who suffer from anxiety are sometimes advised to keep quiet music on in their vehicles as a means of maintaining calm. Sporting events often use specific songs as a means of exciting the crowd and creating an atmosphere of anticipation. Music psychology attempts to understand why specific types of music create these effects, and how it can be harnessed to bring specific reactions from individuals.

Several prominent universities now offer specialization in the field of music psychology. Ohio State University in the United States and the Royal College of Music in London, England are both pioneers in the field of music psychology education. Moreover, prominent societies that employ both musicologists and psychologists have sprung up all over the world, studying the effects of regional music on local cultures.

Although it is a relatively new field, music psychology studies one of the oldest known cultural practices. The idea that the human brain reacts specifically to tonality, rhythmic patterns and learned musical practices is a fascinating concept worthy of scientific exploration. Using modern brain-mapping technology and sophisticated research techniques, it may be possible to identify and control the effects of music on the brain, leading to possible benefits to those with mental and even some physical problems. Only time will tell how valuable the research will become, but it looks likely to gain interest and adherents as it becomes a more prominent field of study.

Different kinds of music can influence a person's mood.
Different kinds of music can influence a person's mood.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I was born in the south in the 1950's and all the adults in my universe had your typical racist attitudes. Then all of a sudden, The Ed Sullivan Show brought musical artists like The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Fifth Dimension into white America's living rooms. But my Daddy wouldn't let us watch Ed Sullivan. However, our Grandmother lived with us and she watched Ed Sullivan, so I had to sneak down the hall to her room to watch it. I could get away with it for awhile because we lived in a big old Southern house. You might not notice the absence of a small child in the evening for at least a little while.

He would actually come and get me, but he eventually let us start watching Ed Sullivan and eventually other TV shows that let us hear that wonderful Motown music! I still believe that had a big effect on race relations in my area at the time.

Christian Lee

Now this is interesting. An unexpected combination of two distinctive subjects. I am a musician and thus find interest in people and why we are the way we are. The correlation music has to psychology can be broken down from performance to recording, composing, listening etc. I thank you for this intro on Music Psychology. Highly insightful and helpful. I'll definitely look into this.


As a freshman in high school, I'm starting to consider career and college major opportunities. Last year we took a career compatibility test and my most compatible career was "art/music therapist."

I really liked the idea at first, but in the state of South Dakota there are not many jobs in that field. I am in love with music however and was delighted when I read this article; especially since I was and am considering a major in psychology and minor in fine arts. I can't wait to see were life leads me!


this is wonderful. thank you so much for your blurb. it really fascinates me that music combines us all. what is it that makes us as one when we hear music with our individual pair of ears. it's like we come together and join hands metaphorically when music is played to a group. there may be no greater force to bring peace, happiness and goodwill to the world.


I am currently studying computer science and am madly into music. Can anybody please suggest ways in which I could use my comp. science knowledge with research in music. --Swapnil


I looked into getting a degree in music psychology, and one of the things I thought sounded the coolest about that degree was the experiments.

Music psychology experiments are so interesting -- they even play music for babies just to see how they react. Maybe I'm a music nerd, but that is totally fascinating for me.


@planch -- You could try the Handbook of Music Psychology, or you could even just google "music psychology articles" or "cognitive psychology: music". I bet that would give you a good idea of what kind of research or experiments they do.


What an interesting concept. I had heard of art psychology before, but never music psychology. I wonder how that got started as a discipline?

Now I'm really interested in this. Are there some good music psychology books or journals out there that I could read to get a better understanding about the different kinds of music psychology research methods?

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