MUSIC 231 - Music Cognition

John Brownell

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Table of contents

Introduction on course outline and (potential) course topics. Two kinds of researchers will be interested in this field (psychology of music): musicians interested in psychology, and psychologist interested in music. The professor belongs to the first kind :)

Lec 2 - Sept 13

Bill Thompson considers three “abiding controversies” in the psychology of music.

Music and Psych

There are 6 broad areas of intersection between music and psychology:

  1. Performance. Music is performance art, social dynamic.
    • anxiety/”stage fright”: related to sports psychology, peak performance, visualization, stress management, etc.
    • development psychology: how do we acquire music skills. Most responses to music are learned. This is also related to music education/talent.
  2. Perception/Cognition/Memory. People have different perception towards a certain phenomenon: different discrimination for pitch, high/low, or big/small.
  3. Music and language. Music is emotion rather than concepts. Unlike language, requiring two users understanding the same language, there’s a huge gap between producing and listening to music.
  4. Intersection with Social Psychology: music is main prerequisite for certain culture. Music serves as a marker for social grouping.
  5. Music and emotion. In 20th century, composers tried to take emotion out of the music, then music is all about forms and so on.
  6. The “Problem of Creativity”. Where does music ideas come from? How are they generated?


What is sound? acoustical realities. Acoustics now a subfield of fluid dynamics. Musical sound is also pressure wave, but sth unique: tone, a sound that is dominated by a particular frequency. Note that pure tones do not exist in nature.

Lec 4 - Sept 21

Scales: Pythagorean, equal temperament

Hierarchy of tones are scales. The first note is the most important, and other tones might be consonant with that. We can transpose from one key to another is because of the hierarchy of the tones.

Early in 17C, in Europe, someone divides Pythagorean comma by 12, then if we go around by 12 times, then we get the same note. Then Bach wrote WTC.

Maximally even arrangements.

minimum range for melody.

Music is a characteristic behavior of human (and maybe whales). It must have an origin. music precursor to language

Darwin: species change over time. What drives the change?

immense amount of time for species to diverge.

adaptations. Music adaptation? survival value of music?

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