What is Music Cognition – A Primer

Considering that the field of music cognition has only started offering Masters degrees in the past ten years or so, it is a safe assumption that not many people know a whole lot about it. Those that do encounter the term in passing may simply scratch their heads and, if someone does not help enlighten them, will simply brush it off as us silly humanities people trying to be scientific. My goal is to have you, my awesome readers, walk/click away from here with a better understanding of the field of music cognition. Rest assured, this is pure, rigorous science backed by neuroscientists, psychologists, and musicians all at once. There’s nothing touchy-feely about this research…minus the music as healing part. More on that later, of course.

Oh yes, I ought to mention that I wish to contribute research to the music psychology/cognition sub-field during my career, so that is why I’m talking about this highly fascinating subject (to me, anyways, and hopefully to you as well). I’m writing this with as little citations as needed and am drawing from my own personal knowledge and understanding. At the end, I have included links of interest related to music cognition.

So first, on to the fundamental question: what is music cognition? The term “music cognition” is an overarching term that actually covers three subdivisions: computational models of music, music psychology/cognition, and music theory. Like all fields of study with subdivisions, there is some overlap here and there in the fields. Having taken courses in all of these, I can say a few things about these subdivisions.

1.) Music Theory:

Music theory both stands by itself as its own field and as a subfield of music cognition. In a way, it serves as the backbone for the music psychology/cognition and computational models of music. It deals largely with analysis and of music and provides the foundation to composition. Before diving into any form of music study, cognition or otherwise, a working knowledge of music theory is usually necessary. Most of the time, study begins with 2 part voice writing leading into 4 part voice writing. Then, students learn analysis of basic tonal music, generally from early periods, before progressing to more difficult tonal music. Finally, study of atonal music analysis usually rounds off basic theory education.

2.) Music Psychology/Cognition:

Music psychology/cognition focuses on a large variety of things. Researchers study things like absolute (also known as perfect) pitch, general perception of music, emotion, performance practice, or amusia (colloquially known as “tone deafness”) and how our brains react to it using neuroscientific techniques, such as fMRI or EEG, or psychological measures, such as surveys. My particular interest is in the clinical applications of music, or music therapy.

From the official American Music Therapist Association website:

The idea of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior is as least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. The 20th century profession formally began after World War I and World War II when community musicians of all types, both amateur and professional, went to Veterans hospitals around the country to play for the thousands of veterans suffering both physical and emotional trauma from the wars.

Basically, music therapy as an idea has been around for a long time, but we have never empirically figured out why and how it works. My interest lies in figuring out why/how it works using a combination of the neuroscientific techniques and psychological measures mentioned above, focusing on therapies for mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder and memory and motor problems such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Once we gain a better understanding of how the existing therapies work from a neuroscientific standpoint, in the future, we will be better able to assist music therapists design newer, more effective treatment plans. Shameless plug for my thesis again here. Finally, the McMaster Institute of Music has built a fantastic hall to study bodily reactions to music. From their website:

This facility will contain dozens of speakers embedded in the ceiling facilitating the use of a virtual acoustics system simulating different performances spaces, advanced motion capture equipment, EEG equipment for monitoring the brain states of 30 audience members, high quality audio-visual recording equipment, and sophisticated touchpad responses systems enabling real-time monitoring from up to 100 concurrent listeners.

3.) Computational Models of Music:

The use of computational models in the field of music cognition relies heavily on analysis of musical pitch contours and rhythms. Using tools such as Markov Chains, researchers in this subfield attempt to construct models of things like how certain artists compose, how brains process and respond to music based on key or contour, and cataloging entire bodies of work. This branch of music cognition is slightly less accessible due to its programming and upper level mathematics prerequisites in addition to music theory knowledge.


Well, there you have it. This is as succinct a post as I could make about the different components of music cognition (with an obvious bias towards my own interests). I hope you found this interesting and learned something new today. As always, feel free to contact me via email by clicking on the menu item on top or leaving a comment/question below.

Thanks for reading!

Related links:

1.) Dr. Vicky Williamson, the course coordinator for my Masters
2.) The McMaster Institute of Music 
3.)  Society for Music Perception and Cognition
4.) American Music Therapy Association
5.) Music Matters: A Blog about Music Cognition
6.) Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music”, among others
7.) Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of “Musicophilia”

(Photo Credit: Rock and Theology)


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