Psychology of Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Psychology of Music

To 1978The scientific investigation of the relationship of music to the human mind. The first courses in the psychology of music in Canada were established in 1935 by Cyril C. (Cornelius) O'Brien at the Maritime Academy of Music in Halifax.
To 1978

The scientific investigation of the relationship of music to the human mind. The first courses in the psychology of music in Canada were established in 1935 by Cyril C. (Cornelius) O'Brien at the Maritime Academy of Music in Halifax. As head of the academy's dept of psychology until 1947, O'Brien - b Halifax 22 Mar 1906; D MUS (Montreal), D PAED (Montreal), PH D psychology (Ottawa) - taught courses in the psychology of music, administered tests of musical talent, and wrote articles on music aptitude tests (1935), tonal memory (1943, 1953, 1958), and tone colour discrimination (1945). In Montreal Rodolphe Mathieu had begun administering music aptitude tests in 1930 at his Canadian Institute of Music.

Despite these beginnings, only a few Canadian universities offered regular courses in the psychology of music in the late 1970s: the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Western Ontario, and Wilfrid Laurier University.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, research related to the field was conducted in university departments of both psycology and music education. At the University of Victoria, research has been carried out on the musical creativity of school children (Vaughan and Myers 1971); and at the University of Western Ontario there have been studies on the judging of instrumental performances of secondary school students (Fiske 1975). In addition, several masters' theses in education have dealt with topics related to the psychology of music (eg, Walley 1970, Cooper 1972).

A major part of the research done in Canada in the psychology of music has been in psychoacoustics (the study of the precise relation between subjective representation and objective, acoustic variables) and auditory perception. Several studies on the right-hemisphere dominance of the brain in the perception of musical stimuli were carried out at McGill University (Doehring 1972, Bartholomeus et al 1973 and 1974, Kallman and Corballis 1975). Also at McGill, questions of order perception in music (Bregman and Campbell 1971, Bregman 1978a,b) and the discrimination of simultaneous and successive musical tones (Doehring 1968, Doehring and Ling 1971) have been studied. At the University of Toronto in the laboratory directed by C.D. Creelman, doctoral theses have been produced that deal with the learning of 'absolute pitch' (Cuddy 1965) and the perception of pitch structure in music (Pedersen 1970). As an application of psychoacoustics to music, Pedersen (1965) suggested the possible use of the mel scale in composition.

L.L. Cuddy has continued her work on the absolute judgment of pitch (1968, 1970, 1971) at Queen's University showing the importance of structural relations and musical experience. Theses supervised by Cuddy include studies in interval recognition (Cohen 1972, Thonigs 1973), tonal memory (Dewar 1974), auditory temporal patterns (Miller 1974), and tonality in transposed tone sequences (Cohen 1975). Work on absolute pitch also has been carried out at the University of Western Ontario (Siegel 1974, Siegel and Siegel 1977a and b), York University (Crozier et al 1977) and Calgary (Vernon 1977). One study was conducted on hearing melody in infancy (Chang and Trehub 1977).

Under the direction of D.E. Berlyne of the University of Toronto studies were undertaken in the field of experimental aesthetics concerning the psychological function of the 'arousal mechanism' as well as effects of pitch complexity and duration (Berlyne, 1960, 1974; Berlyne et al 1966, 1967). His colleagues have investigated multidimensional scaling of responses to music (Hare 1975) and the effects of varying uncertainty level on responses to musical stimuli (Crozier 1974). An experimental study of symbolism in music (Nelson and Herczeg 1972) done at the University of Alberta also belongs to the broader category of experimental aesthetics.

David Rosenboom (1974) explored the application of biofeedback in electronic music. During the late 1970s, the psychology of music was also stimulated by access to computers for control of music in experiments as described by Cohen, Isaacs, Flores, Harrison and Bradley (1977).

See also Acoustics research in Canada; Music therapy; World Soundscape Project.


O'Brien, C.C. 'The measurement of music talent,' NS J of Education, series 4, vol 6, Mar 1935

- 'Part and whole methods in the memorization of music,' J of Educational Psychology, vol 34, Dec 1943

- 'Tone colour discrimination of grade seven boys,' J of Genetic Psychology, 67, Sep 1945

- 'Atypical tonal memory,' J of Psychology, 35, 1953

- 'Facets of exploration in tonal memory,' Acoustical Soc of America J, 30, Apr 1958

Berlyne, D.E. Conflict, Arousal and Curiosity (New York 1960)

Pedersen, P.R. 'The mel scale,' J of Music Theory, vol 9, Spring 1965

Berlyne, D.E., and Nicki, R.M. 'Effects of the pitch and duration of tones on EEG desynchronization,' Psychonomic Science, vol 4, 1966

Berlyne, D.E., et al. 'Effects of auditory pitch and complexity on EEG desynchronization and on verbally expressed judgments,' Canadian J of Psychology, 21, Aug 1967

Cuddy, L.L. 'Practice effects in the absolute judgment of pitch,' Acoustical Soc of America J, 43, May 1968

Doehring, D.G. 'Discrimination of simultaneous and successive tones,' Perception and Psychophysics, 3, no. 4B, 1968

Cuddy, L.L. 'Training the absolute identification of pitch,' Perception and Psychophysics, 8, no. 5A, 1970

Bregman, A.S., and Campbell, J. 'Primary auditory stream segregation and perception of order in rapid sequences of tones,' J of Experimental Psychology, 89, Aug 1971

Cuddy, L.L. 'The absolute judgment of musically-related pure tones,' Canadian J of Psychology, 25, Feb 1971

Doehring, D.G. 'Discrimination of simultaneous and successive pure tones by musical and non musical subjects,' Psychonomic Science, vol 22, no. 4, 1971

Doehring, D.G., and Ling, D. 'Matching to sample of three-tone simultaneous and successive sounds by musical and nonmusical subjects,' Psychonomic Science, vol 25, no. 2, 1971

Vaughan M., and Myers, R.E. 'An examination of musical process as related to creative thinking,' J of Research in Music Education, vol 19, Fall 1971

Doehring, D.G. 'Ear asymmetry in the discrimination of monaural tonal sequences,' Canadian J of Psychology, vol 26, Mar 1972

Nelson, T.M., and Herczeg, A. 'Symbolic content in Wagner's music,' J of Symbology, vol 3, no. 2, 1972

Bartholomeus, B. et al. 'Absence of stimulus effects in dichotic singing,' Bulletin of the Psychonomic Soc, vol 1, no. 3, 1973

Bartholomeus, B. 'Dichotic singer and speaker recognition,' Bulletin of the Psychonomic Soc, vol 2, no. 4B, 1974

'Effects of task requirements on ear superiority for sung speech,' Cortex, vol 10, Sep 1974

Berlyne, D.E., ed. Studies in the New Experimental Aesthetics (Washington, DC 1974)

Crozier, J.B. 'Verbal and exploratory responses to sound sequences varying in uncertainty level,' Studies in the New Experimental Aesthetics (Washington, DC, 1974)

Rosenboom, David. Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments (Vancouver 1974)

Siegel, J.A. 'Sensory and verbal coding strategies in subjects with absolute pitch,' J of Experimental Psychology, 103, Jul 1974

Fiske, H.E., Jr. 'Judge-group differences in the rating of secondary school trumpet performances,' J of Research in Music Education, 23, Fall 1975

Kallman, H.J., and Corballis, M.C. 'Ear asymmetry in reaction to musical sounds,' Perception and Psychophysics, 17, Apr 1975

Cuddy, L.L. and Cohen, A.J. 'Recognition of transposed melodic sequences,' Quarterly J of Experimental Psychology, 28, 1976

Crozier, J.B., et al. 'Etiology of absolute pitch,' Bulletin de Psychologie, 30, 1976-7

Kemp, W.H. 'Towards the development of truly contemporary listening,' CME, vol 17, (1976)

Chang, H., and Trehub, S. 'Auditory processing of relational information by young infants,' J of Experimental Child Psychology, 1977

Cohen, A.J., et al. Computing in the Humanities, eds S. Lusignan and J. North (Waterloo, Ont 1977)

Siegel, J.A. and Siegel, W. 'Absolute identification of notes and intervals by musicians,' Perception and Psychophysics, 21, 1977.

- 'Categorical perception of tonal intervals: musicians can't tell sharp from flat,'. Perception and Psychophysics, 21, 1977

Vernon, P.E. 'Absolute pitch: A case study,' British J of Psychology, 68, 1977

Bregman, A.S. 'Auditory streaming: Competition among alternative organizations,' Perception and Psychophysics, vol 23, no. 5, 1978

- 'Auditory streaming is cumulative,' J of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol 4, no. 3, 1978


Buddy, L.L. 'Practice effects in pitch perception,' PH D thesis, University of Toronto 1965

Pedersen, P.R. 'The perception of musical pitch structure,' PH D thesis, University of Toronto 1970

Walley, C.S. 'A study of one aspect of psychophysiological research as it relates to the evaluation of school music programs,' M ED thesis, University of Manitoba 1970

Cooper, G.A. 'Children's perception of musical pitch,' MA thesis, McGill University 1972

Thonigs, A.N.M. 'Musical interval recognition,' MA thesis, Queen's University 1973

Dewar, Kathryn M. 'Context effects in recognition memory for tones,' PH D thesis, Queen's University 1974

Miller, J. 'Perception and mis-perception of brief auditory temporal patterns,' MA thesis, Queen's University 1974

Cohen, A.J. 'Perception of tone sequences from the Western-European chromatic scale: tonality transposition and the pitch set,' PH D thesis, Queen's University 1975

Hare, F.G. 'The identification of dimensions underlying responses to music through multi-dimensional scaling,' PH D thesis, University of Toronto 1975


Journal of Experimental Aesthetics. Journal of the Aesthetic Research Centre of Canada (Vancouver 1974-)

Scientific Aesthetics - Sciences de l'Art. Quarterly journal (New York 1976-)


This period was marked by a dramatic increase in scholarly publication by Canadians, university courses, graduate student enrolment, faculty, and research facilities. Positions in departments of psychology and of music were filled by faculty who had completed graduate theses in the psychology of music at Canadian universities (eg, Capodilupo, Thompson, the late Helen Lyons), by Canadians who received their highest degree at institutions outside Canada (eg, Browne, Cooper, Huron, Rahn, Unyk), and by others, born and trained elsewhere (eg, Peretz, Pimentel, Schmuckler, Wapnick, Zatorre). Several senior faculty whose previous work had not related to music began to direct their research toward music (eg, Platt, Racine). This growth of interest is a natural consequence of the foundation laid in the 1970s in such laboratories as those of Cuddy and H.E. Fiske and also a response to a variety of national and international developments.

Factors influencing progress in the psychology of music

The 1980s marked the growth of the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, a field which embraced aspects of computer science, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. One of its aims was the development of precise, quantitative models of mental activities. This goal replaced earlier primary focuses within psychology of either behaviorism or psychophysics. Whereas behaviorism, with its emphasis on observable behaviour, had excluded music, cognitive science encompassed studies of how the mind represents musical stimuli. Comparisons between computer and human information processing of music often stimulated theoretical ideas about music perception, cognition, performance and composition.

Computers influenced the psychology of music also in other ways. Computer technology provided a means for generation of sound and for collection and analysis of data. Computers used by researcher, composer, and educator alike for a variety of functions provided a lingua franca for shared concerns about music perception and learning. Experience with computer-generated sound served to challenge certain basic musical concepts, such as consonance and dissonance. One outcome is the book A History of Consonance and Dissonance (New York 1988) by the composer James Tenney, a pioneer in computer-generated sound. Computer-assisted learning of music also attracted the attention of researchers. The computer's ability to store and analyse large musical repertoires enabled D.B. Huron (1988) to test psychological principles underlying compositional practice.

In addition to the emergence of cognitive science and the development of computer technology, the discipline of human experimental psychology itself became more amenable to the study of musical processes. For example, the focus on adult behaviour expanded to younger humans. The growing field of neuroscience stimulated studies of the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying musical processes. Canadian psychology became especially strong in neuroscience, development, perception, cognition and memory, and research in these areas applied to music received much international attention. Within music education, increased interest in approaches of different cultures (eg, Orff, Suzuki, and Kodály) motivated psychological studies. Strengths and progressiveness in music pedagogy in Canada fostered contributions from the field of music education. Other technological, educational, and sociological changes beyond the scope of this review indirectly increased interest in the psychology of music.

The recent progress in music and psychology is not unique to Canada and is reflected by growing numbers of international meetings related to music cognition (eg, Canadians participated 1989-90 in international conferences held in Japan, Sweden, Britain, and Austria). Further attesting to the vitality of the field are three journals in music and psychology for which Canadians serve as consulting or associate editors (Psychomusicology, Cuddy; Music Perception, Benjamin, A.S. Bregman; and Psychology of Music, Huron). Articles on the psychology of music also appear in the J for Research in Music Education whose editorial board has included Joel Wapnick. Furthermore, research of Canadians has been published in general psychology, music, and acoustics journals and books which reach a broad audience.

By 1990 over 40 Canadian researchers were active in the psychology of music. Since this number excludes graduate and senior undergraduate students and support personnel supervised by these researchers, it vastly underestimates the total involvement of Canadians in this field. Activities were fairly equally distributed between university music departments (including music education and music therapy), and psychology departments with a few others in education, physical education, kinesiology, and child studies programs. All provinces were represented.


Psychoacoustics provides information about human hearing but generally does not focus on music. Nevertheless some psychoacoustic research is specifically directed to musical concerns such as absolute pitch (Cuddy, 1982; Zatorre and Beckett, 1989), tuning skills (Elliot et al, 1987; Platt and Racine, 1985), effects of musical contexts on pitch perception (Cuddy and Dobbins, 1988; Platt et al, 1990; Wapnick et al, 1982), intervals (Zatorre, 1983), and timbre (Cohen, 1982; Trehub et al, 1990; Wapnick and Freeman, 1980; Zagorski, 1989). The segregation of sound into separate streams has been studied by Bregman, his students and associates (see references to Bregman and colleagues McAdams and Wright). Related to Bregman's 'auditory scene analysis' is the perceptual isolation or fusion of melodic lines. From this perspective, Huron (1989) and Huron and Fantini (1989) examined the perceptual basis of polyphonic music, especially the derivation of voice-leading practices and the limits for hearing out simultaneous voices.

Neuropsychology. Neuropsychological research identifies the physiological systems underlying musical processes. Specific emphasis has been placed on the functions of temporal lobes of the left and right cerebral hemispheres by Zatorre (eg, 1985, 1988, 1989) of the Montreal Neurological Institute. It is well established that many linguistic functions are carried out by the left cerebral hemisphere (of right-handers). Early research suggested that musical functions primarily exploited the right hemisphere. More recent research reveals that activation of one of the hemispheres depends on the type of processing required (see papers by Peretz and by Samson and Zatorre). Neuropsychological research facilitates understanding music cognition in novices or nonmusicians as well as expert musicians by studying normal subjects as well as brain-damaged patients including musical savants (see papers by Charness, by Segalowitz and by Pechstedt). Various techniques are employed such as comparing results of perception and memory for information presented to the left versus the right ear. New technology such as positron emission tomography which records brain activity during perception has also been used.

Musical structure, tonality and rhythm

Seminal research from the laboratory of Cuddy of Queen's University has continued to examine the mental representation of tonality, the perception of a central reference tone, chord, or key and the associated network of hierarchical pitch relations to the tonic. The research is characterized by careful attention to the physical description and control of the stimulus, as in psychoacoustics; however, it is difficult to achieve this for complex music stimuli. The psychological significance of music-theoretic assumptions has been validated in many of these studies using short excerpts of real music such as Bach preludes and chorales (cf, Cohen, 1991; Thompson and Cuddy, 1987, 1989).

Considerable research has exploited the 'probe-tone' task of the US researcher Carol Krumhansl (1983). In this paradigm listeners are presented with a short musical context and subsequently are asked to rate how well a musical element, such as a tone, fits the context. The ratings show that listeners typically regard the tones of the major tonic triad as most representative of diatonic context, followed by the remaining tones of the diatonic scale, and lastly the non-diatonic notes (Cuddy, 1985; Cuddy and Badertcher, 1987; Frankland and Cohen, 1990). These results are consistent with earlier findings of the significance of musical chord structure in memory and perceived good form of short sequences (Cuddy et al, 1979; Cuddy et al, 1981; Cuddy and Lyons, 1981). Related work has extended to polytonality (Krumhansl and Schmuckler, 1986), random (fractal) tone sequences, and expectancy (Schmuckler, 1989, 1990; Unyk and Carlsen, 1987, Unyk, 1990).

A decade earlier, research had isolated various elements influencing music perception such as intervals, chord progressions, and melodic contour. During the 1980s, greater focus has been on the interaction of these dimensions and on the hierarchical organization within a particular dimension. Thompson and Cuddy (1989) refer to the hierarchy consisting of the central tonic, the network of pitch relations to the tonic and the shift of central referent as a piece of music unfolds (modulation). Cohen et al (1989) and Cohen and Frankland (1990) examined the effect of macrocontour, the higher order contour variable, on memory for tone patterns, independently of tonality and triad structure.

Whereas quantification of listener's responses as described above finds a natural home in the experimental psychology laboratory, in music departments, experimental psychological research is often an adjunct to teaching in ear training and foundations of music theory. In the music department concerns are expressed for both global and microanalytic theoretical approaches to understanding music perception across cultures and age groups (eg, Fiske, 1990; Rahn, 1983; Walker, 1989). Fiske (1982, 1987), for example, has explored variables of tonality and rhythm, using chronometric analysis (ie, reaction times) to develop models of information processing in musical cognition. Huron (1990) is exploring adaptive modelling of listening styles and strategies. In addition, using computer-based methods of analysis of both scores and the dynamics in the classical and romantic literature, he has shown that compositional practices are consistent with a theoretical strategy for maintaining the listener's attention. Kemp in preparation of a book on surprise in music has studied cadence finality preference among listeners, the experience of time passing in listening to new music, and affective response to new music. At the University of Victoria, Mountain's music doctoral thesis on 20th-century composition takes a perspective from the psychology of perception.

Rhythm has been explored by Côté-Laurence (see references) from the perspectives of dance, physical education, and Kodály. Tenney and Polansky together proposed a model of temporal grouping based on gestalt principles of proximity and similarity. The model applies to the mental processes carried out in both music analysis and music listening. Other studies related to rhythm have been conducted by Benjamin (1984), Smith and Cuddy (1989), Rahn (1986), Wood (1986), Wapnick (1980, 1984), Upitis (1987b, 1988) and Trehub and Thorpe (1989). Rhythmic precision in piano performance and the effects of tonal structure on rhythmic accuracy in piano performance has been investigated by MacKenzie and her colleagues using a grand piano interfaced with microcomputer for accurately monitoring kinematics of keyboard activity including sensorimotor integration and the control/coordination of movement in performance (see references of MacKenzie and to colleagues Van Eerd, and Wills).


Trehub has developed a procedure to reveal infants' ability to discriminate between melodies (Trehub, 1987, 1990). In this procedure, first a short melody is repeatedly presented to an infant. Then the melody is slightly changed. Infants who notice the change, reflexively produce an orienting response, for example, turn toward the audio speaker which presented the melody. This response provides evidence that the change was detected. By rewarding the infant with a view of a moving toy after each correct orienting response, the infant learns to 'tell' the experimenter when a difference is perceived. This reinforced headturn procedure has shown that infants can detect differences of a semitone, the smallest musical unit in traditional western music, in untransposed (Trehub et al 1986) and transposed melodies (Cohen et al, 1987) and that detectability of a change is better for well-structured as opposed to poorly structured melodies (Trehub et al, 1990). Often in these studies, a very limited set of musical materials has been used for the purpose of experimental control. (Cohen et al, 1989). Trehub, Unyk, and Trainor are also studying which aspects of musical processing require culture-specific exposure, the nature of infant and child preferences for musical selections, infants' affective and movement responses to music cross-culturally, and universal aspects of lullabies.

Other work with children has been conducted by Morrongiello and her colleagues, by Cohen and Baird (1990) and by Cuddy and Badertcher (1987). The advantage of musical experience in various musical tasks has been explored in much research (eg, Beal, 1984; Zatorre, 1979). Cognitive developmental theory has been applied to such music skills as sightreading and notation with the ultimate goal of designing instructional programs for elementary level music that are appropriate in complexity and timing to the child's musical and non-musical cognitive abilities. In contrast to numerous studies of infants and children, studies with elderly people are rare.


For faculty members in music departments, the responsibilities of teaching, composition and performance often leave little time for empirical research. Nevertheless, a number of innovations in music education have been investigated such as in ear training and harmonic dictation (Rahn and McKay, 1988), computer assisted instruction (Clements and Wood, 1984; Wood and Clements, 1986) and the application of the Alfred Tomatis Listening Training Program (Clarkson, 1991). Music educators such as Linda Pimentel at the University of Lethbridge also attempt to apply psychology research in courses ranging from ensemble to music education. Cuddy and Upitis have investigated the application of research on musical structure to such problems as absolute identification of pitch, tone deafness (cf Mawhinney, 1987) and the implications these studies have for a general creative approach to training of young children. Cuddy and Smith have also considered the relation between reading and rhythm ability and Peterson (1990) has explored the transfer from Kodály music training to achievement in language reading.

Aesthetics and meaning

Following the Berlyne tradition, Smith and Cuddy (1986) examined the pleasingness of a melodic sequence as a function of the number of repetitions. Shrotel and Browne (1989) studied open-ended verbal discussions of music. Bartel (1988) developed a rating-scale instrument for the cognitive/affective response to music. Using semantic differential scales, the emotional meaning of classical music (Nowlan, 1988) and film music (Cohen, 1990) has also been investigated. The aesthetic response to the individual style of a performer or composer has been explored by Thompson (1989) and Thompson et al (1989). Preference for aspects of piano performance has been investigated by Wapnick (1980), Wapnick and Rosenquist (1991). For other preference studies see Wapnick (1987) and Daoussis and McKelvie (1986).

Throughout civilization, music has typically been performed as an accompaniment to lyrics, dance and drama. A contemporary example of this is film music which offers many phenomena amenable to psychological investigation (Cohen, 1990). Marshall and Cohen (1988) showed the influence of musical soundtracks on film meaning. Cohen and Dunphy (1990) investigated the role of music on memory for film. In particular, they studied the NFB silent film, The Railrodder, and revealed good memory for the accompanying music even when a dialogue was added to the film, contradicting the notion that film music is 'unheard'. The ability to integrate words and tunes has been studied in children by MacLachlan et al (1985) and Morrongiello and Roes (1990b) and in adults by Samson and Zatorre (1991). Walker (1987, 1990b) has also reviewed relations between musical and visual pattern.

Other interdisciplinary activity

In addition to the links between music and psychology departments within the same university (eg, Queen's University, Dalhousie University, McGill University, University of Victoria, University of Western Ontario), there are other interdisciplinary collaborations. At Simon Fraser University, departments of music and engineering together have developed software for audiovisual discrimination. Piano performance research has been conducted jointly by departments of music, systems design engineering, and kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. Links are maintained between Canadian researchers and those outside Canada (eg, Zatorre of McGill University with Halpern of Bucknell; Unyk of University of Toronto with Carlsen of U of Washington; MacKenzie of University of Waterloo with Gabrielsson of Uppsala). As well, there are liaisons with industry (eg, Roland Canada with Walker at Simon FraserU ).


Over the last decade, progress in the psychology of music in Canada is especially remarkable when considering that restraint rather than expansion has characterized the university climate. Much of the work on musical tonality, stream segregation, and infant perception has been groundbreaking, and the application of psychoacoustic precision to musical issues has set standards internationally. It is clear also that much remains to be done. Moreover, in spite of some collaborations between musicians and psychologists there is evidence of two camps, two styles of work and of discourse. There is not a single faculty appointment made jointly between a psychology and a music department, and there is often little cross-referencing between the work generated in music and psychology departments. Thus, there is much scope within Canada for interaction between the musical and psychological approaches to the psychology of music. The technological and theoretical foundations are well in place both for continuing Canadian developments and for greater dialogue between musicians and psychologists. Finally, while the field of the psychology of music in Canada is flourishing, nevertheless there are no research or academic interdisciplinary centres officially designated for or dedicated to the psychology of music, as there are in the USA and France. Thus, progress is largely dependent on continuing initiatives of individuals as it has been in the past.

Further Reading