Music Psychologists – Where Are You?

Writer Mirab Kay / Photographer 

How much does music affect you in everyday life? Whether the answer is “a lot” or “a bit”, if you’re reading this you’ll probably agree that music is a vital part of our lives even when we don’t notice it. But how many of you know why this is? 

The science behind music isn’t shared with us when tackling mental health in school, the workplace or in aiding productivity. It holds nowhere near the therapeutic reputation of meditation or mindfulness. Yet, music is one of the most powerful emotive forces on the planet. 

I’d like us to take a musical journey back to primary school. I have no doubt that we all remember playing with glockenspiels and tambourines, being encouraged to dance and sing. There is no dispute that music played a role in our early years especially in shaping our general music taste but does anyone remember doing music as a subject? 

The government can say all they like in their National Plan for Music Education which was published 10 years ago, and maybe music is being explored more than it was before then. But, as a subject, proper musical education is still widely unavailable to us at our most moldable ages. 

The government’s plan sets out that musical training shall be more available to all children which is absolutely great news… Until you realise there’s a fee. 

Speaking from a working-class, ethnic minority background, music lessons just weren’t an option. Yes, we had the opportunity to learn violin, recorder and even ocarina, but dropout rates increased dramatically when a fee was introduced, as they did up and down the country. 

This does not sound like inclusivity to me. 

Not only are primary school children missing out on the opportunity to delve deep into music theory, but they are also not reaping the benefits of music in general like increased concentration and creativity. 

The government will set out a new plan this year that they claim will “shape the future of music education”. However, I think the 10 year wait alone emphasises an overall disinterest from our government, beautifully summarised in Rishi Sunak’s famous statement about musicians (and other artists says they “should re-train and find other jobs”. 

As if music wasn’t one of the only things holding us together during the pandemic.

There is a wealth of information on the side of researchers, although This Is Your Brain On Music author Daniel Levitin admits: “music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible”.

The next stop on our journey is secondary school. Music is now a subject, instrument learning is up, and new faces contribute to our music tastes. If you’re as passionate about music as I am, I won’t need to tell you that our listening habits influenced our friend groups and even the way we dressed at this very sociable age. 

Again,​​ this goes without saying. What doesn’t go without saying is why music influences our social lives. 

This WIRED article holds some of the answers, but information like this isn’t shared with us at school and let’s face it, none of us had the motivation to go and find it for ourselves. One point the article introduces is that we make assumptions about music taste based on how a person dresses or behaves. 

Stereotyping, assumption-making, selectively avoiding – I am a metalhead who wears pastel colours and enjoys playing classical music: think of how many people missed out on making my acquaintance because of their assumptions. How much easier would it have been to make new friends if we had known to ask about their music tastes?

During secondary school people are also beginning to decide on potential career paths and I bet no one was encouraged to be a musician or music psychologist by their ‘careers’ advisor.

In fact, I bet barely anyone even thought of music as a safe career option. Science was safe, English was safe, Maths was safe. Who says music can’t be a part of any of these subjects, is music dangerous? As Levitin aptly quotes Robert Sapolsky at the beginning of his book, “So many…feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts”. 

The option to continue music to college or degree level is not represented nearly enough, simply because it is generally thought that taking music means you have to be a musician. But, even this was a safer option than applying for one of the only Music Psychology courses I could find. 

At BIMM, I quickly grew tired of the overall lack of interest in the psychology and science behind the music I was making (on the part of the students as well as the tutors). I produced pieces and layered the bass because we know that these low frequencies form tangible and satisfying connections with the music. But WHY? 

No one could tell me. I lost interest in asking. The subject is so obscure because not enough people care and these conversations aren’t taking place. So I’m begging, the curious few that do care, show yourselves. We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis and we need all the support we can get.