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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Exploring The Musical Mind: Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function by John Sloboda (Oxford University Press) (Hardcover) In the 20 years since publication of John Sloboda's landmark volume The Musical Mindl music psychology has developed as a vibrant area of research - exerting influence on areas as diverse as music education and cognitive neuroscience. This new book brings together 24 selected essays and reviews written by an internationally acclaimed authority on music and the mind. Chapters are grouped into four main areas of study. These are, cognitive processes (including music reading, memory and performance), emotion and motivation, talent and skill development, and music in the real world (including functions of music in everyday life and culture). The book ends with a newly written chapter on music psychology and social benefits. The books brings together in one place a range of influential writings, whose links to one another provide a compendious overview of a subject that has come to maturity during the author's career, a career which has significantly contributed to the development of the field.

Excerpt: I first proposed this book to Oxford University Press for two reasons, one positive, one negative. The positive reason was that I wanted to bring together in one place a number of chapter-length pieces I had written about music over the years. These pieces all shared some of the following characteristics:

They went beyond reporting of specific research studies to reflect on wider issues, of theory, methodology, or practical application.

They were originally published in sources which have become hard to access (for example in books now out of print)

They complemented, or went beyond, the issues and preoccupations of my only other 'single-author' book—The Musical Mind, first published in 1985.

I had been told, by colleagues or readers, that they contained material of current value, which merited their reprinting in more accessible form.

I sincerely believed that this book might be among my last published contributions to the field of music psychology. I felt that there might be more pressing calls on my time and intellectual energies for the foreseeable future.

In thinking about how to frame and introduce this set of readings, I have felt compelled to attempt to articulate, and possibly achieve some reconciliation of, these positive and negative motivations. This is because the issues I have faced, as an individual scientist and writer, are issues which face many intellectual and professional people in one way or another. In exploring and debating these issues my goal is to assist anyone with an interest in music and the mind to situate their interest within the broadest possible context. These issues are, at root, about the responsibility of scientists, writers, and practitioners as citizens, and how we remain true to our wider responsibilities to society within our chosen specialist paths. Rather than have these broader concerns skew this preface out of shape, I have decided to include my reflections on these matters within a specially written Chapter 23.

The chapters are organized into four main Parts, which represent four distinct areas in which I have worked. Each of these areas would be gener­ally accepted as core to an understanding of the musical mind.

Part A (Cognitive processes) starts with research on cognitive processes in music reading, and spreads out from reading to the activities with which reading normally interacts, namely, perception and memory of music, and music performance. The core concept binding together the con­tributions in this part is that of 'mental representations'—categorical and rule-based abstractions from the complex musical surface. The nature and functioning of these representations is the central concern of mainstream cognitive psychology. However, the last two contributions in this section demonstrate how concern with cognition (particularly semantics) leads inevitably to a consideration of the role of the emotions in music cognition.

Perception and cognition remains the core concern of English-language music psychology as evidenced by the preponderance of books and journal articles addressing this subarea. The chapters of this book are not intended to provide a comprehensive overview of the state of the field, rather they illustrate core concerns through issues (reading, memory recall, semantics) which have remained, by and large, rather under-studied, despite their intrinsic interest. Two current growth areas in music cognition are the study of brain mechanisms and modelling of music perception and cognition through computation and artificial intelligence. Whilst acknowl­edging the vibrancy of these approaches, this book remains firmly within the core psychological tradition, where overt human behaviour is the centralform of data, and explanatory frameworks are developed in primarily inten­tional and functional terms.

Part B (Emotion and motivation) examines how emotion impacts at every stage of the musical chain, from composer, through performer, to listener. It also addresses the question of how emotional responses to music develop through childhood, and how differences in emotional musical biographies can lead to gross differences in motivation for musical activity across the lifespan. A key concept of this Part is that of the 'peak experience', a high-intensity psycho-physiological response to music which has both immediate and long-lasting effects, and the attaining of which is a prime reason why many people engage with music. The research on emotion reflects an increasing engagement of the research community in the 1990s. It is now generally accepted that only a joint consideration of the 'cold' processes of cognition and the 'hot' processes of emotion and motivation allows proper understanding of skill development and ways in which music is used in society. Motivation has become a particularly key concept in research on music education and processes of learning.

Part C (Talent and skill development) focuses on the psychological processes underlying the acquisition of different levels of musical skill, with a specific emphasis on performance skills within the classical conservatoire tradition. The question of whether there are innate differences in 'talent' looms large in this work, and the approach taken by my collaborators and myself has been to see how many individual differences could be accounted for by differences in learning experiences, and the motivational and social contexts in which that learning takes. A central concept of this Part is 'practice', and what its characteristics and support demands are.

The research on skill development is a contribution to the 'expertise' research field, pioneered by Herbert Simon, William Chase and others in the 1960s and 1970s, who provided a very clear intellectual grounding for much good contemporary work. Where our work differs from the earlier work is in its extensive use of biographical and interview methods to supplement more traditional experimental techniques. This approach has been further developed by some of the most influential contemporary studies of musical learning.

Part D (Music in the real world) reflects the way in which contemporary thinking about music has more fully embraced social and cultural considerations. Musical skills (of both performing and listening) are highly dependent on the cultural and individual functions and values which music adopts within particular social and historical contexts. This section contains a range of contributions, mainly preliminary and to some extent specula­tive, exploring how these broader cultural considerations may impact on, and relativize, much of our scientific knowledge about musical activity. Uses of music in the home, in the street, in church, and in the concert hall, may have rather little in common with one another. A key concept for this Part is 'functionality'—what the music is for, in the minds of both producers and consumers.

This area of interest represents a natural intellectual progression from the concerns of the previous two Parts. Motivational structures and skill development systems are much more open to cultural influences than basic cognitive processes. However, such issues cannot be addressed solely with the intellectual resources of psychology. They open music behaviour up to the full range of the social sciences, including sociology, anthropol­ogy, and the political sciences. This implies a larger, and potentially less achievable, challenge than the previous two discontinuities, at least in relation to the constraints of an individual career within an individual dis­cipline. These are issues that psychologists individually, and psychology in its current state of development, may simply be as yet unprepared to grasp productively.

The Musical Mind was deliberately open-ended. It tried not to achieve closure on any of the issues raised there, but aimed to express confidence that psychology possessed the resources to make further progress on important (and answerable) questions. The subsequent decades have fully vindicated that confidence. If a book covering the topic areas of The Musical Mind were to be written today, there would be much newer, and better, results to report.

Exploring the Musical Mind is similarly open-ended. Its trajectory leads from the relatively safe and comfortable 'normal science' of the cognitive paradigm (one of the most successful and stable paradigms of 20th-century psychology) through the 'unsafe' area of emotion (one of the most prob­lematic and 'unparadigmatic' areas of modern psychology), to questions which cannot be solved, even in principle, using the intellectual resources of psychology alone. Although I think that a reader will find, within these pages, some better answers to important questions than were available 20 years ago, my more fervent hope is that the reader will be encouraged to embrace better, and more far-reaching questions, than were typically being asked in the field at the time of the publication of The Musical Mind.

I do not retain the same certainty that answers to these questions will be easily obtained, but I do retain the hope that, in another 20 years, the field of music psychology will be at least as different by then as it has become in the last quarter century.

The decision to include a particular chapter in this volume was influenced by a number of factors. Paramount among them was that each chapter should be complete in itself and, in some sense, a 'good read'. By this I mean that each chapter is trying to make a point, carry through an argu­ment, and engage a reader in an implicit dialogue.

My primary selection criterion for each chapter was that it should contain some substantial and unique material, and that each chapter should contain some material not previously included within any book that I have written or edited. For instance, although Chapters 1 and 2 both report research on the psychology of music reading, Chapter 1 is unique in its discussion of educational implications, and Chapter 2 is unique in its coverage of the ability of expert sight-readers to add appropriate non-notated expression to their sight-reading. A few chapters are completely unique, in that they contain, or refer to, no significant material elsewhere within the set. However, uniqueness should not be confused with importance. Where I have considered an idea, or a set of data, to be of great importance, I have tended to refer to it repeatedly. Indeed, overlaps pro-vide a natural way for a reader with a specific set of interests to select the subset which most interests him or her, and to navigate from one chapter to another in a way that reflects his or her priorities rather than the imposed structure of the book.

To assist the reader to navigate the book with some sense of main and recurrent themes, I have provided a table at the end of this introduction which lists the main topic areas of each chapter, and an indication of the key chapters with which it has some overlap. As good musical themes bear repetition within a coherent musical composition, I also hope that repeated themes within the book allow key ideas to be set in different contexts, where different aspects of their importance may be highlighted.

The variation in style between these chapters is less than in a multi-author volume, although writings spanning a 30-year period cannot be totally stylistically consistent. The most strikingly dated aspect of earlier chapters is the use of the masculine where non-sexist conventions would now prescribe gender-neutral terminology. After some debate, I decided that history should not be rewritten, and that the original text should stand, partly as a witness to the social changes that have taken place in my short professional career. I have, however, taken the opportunity to update references which were 'in press' at time of original citation, so that readers wishing to locate these sources could do so on the basis of accurate information.


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