COOL CLASSES: “Psychology of Music”

A psychology course that examines the evolutionary origins of music, why it is able to evoke emotion, and why individuals prefer certain types sort of music.

Class name: “The Psychology of Music”

Taught by: Professor of Psychology Marilyn Boltz

Here’s what Boltz has to say about the course:

I think many of us would find it difficult, if not depressing, to imagine a world without music. Music can uplift our mood, provide solace, and make us move so that we become the music itself. The purpose of this course is to examine the many different facets of music behavior from multiple perspectives in psychology, namely, those of biological, cognitive, social-personality, and applied psychology.

From the biological perspective, one of the most fundamental and puzzling questions concerns the origins of music. Why did music emerge in the overall evolutionary scheme of things? Does it merely provide pleasure as a form of “auditory cheesecake” or did it originate for more adaptive purposes? Some insight into this question comes from a comparative analysis: comparing music across different cultures, different animal species, other types of behavior such as language, and infants vs. adults. It is also of interest to consider the neural substrates of music behavior and whether they overlap with those of other abilities. Finally, we consider evidence showing that musical training can lead to certain structural changes in the brain which can also reap certain cognitive benefits.

The cognitive perspective raises another fundamental question: Does music have meaning? Unlike language, music may not have referential or propositional meaning but most of us would agree that music has expressive meaning—the powerful ability to communicate and evoke emotions. How is music able to do this? What processes are at play, and, when artfully used in contexts such as film and dance, what are the effects upon an audience?

The social-personality approach leads to other issues, one concerning musical preferences. Why do we like the music that we do? For example, why do some prefer classical music or jazz while others find these genres distasteful and, instead, prefer hip-hop? Is it the case that individuals who share musical tastes and preferences are similar on other dimensions? A large body of research has found that such correlations do, in fact, exist in that the dimensions of personality, social class, education, gender, and ethnicity are all associated with certain musical preferences. In addition, people tend to have certain stereotypes of fans for a particular musical genre which, to some extent, are accurate.

The last section of the course considers how music is used in various applied contexts. There are many such examples which include medicine and health, advertising, playing music to create a more positive retail and service environment, and music therapy as an adjunct means of treating various disorders such as autism, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, depression and anxiety, and aphasia.

In short, music is interwoven into the very fabric of our lives and this course attempts to examine some of the ways in which this fabric comes about.

The Psychology of Music is a course that I have wanted to teach ever since I first arrived on the Haverford campus. As an undergraduate, I was a music major before switching to psychology, but later decided I wanted to combine the two disciplines by seeking graduate training in the field of music cognition. Throughout the years, much of my research program has addressed different issues in the psychology of music, and often in the context of my other interest in the psychology of time. Given the recent expansion of the Psychology Department along with some curricular changes in our major, I finally have had the opportunity to develop such a course, which has been an absolute delight.”


Explore other current courses offered by the Psychology Department.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Cool Classes is a new series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.