Music Psychology Research in the Field



“Music is something we all do, and we can all speak about it”

Dr Alexandra Lamont’s powerful statement above was the spine of her presentation. Since the emergence of the discipline of music psychology in the 1950s, until the 1980s, the vast majority of research studies were heavily influenced by the cognitive approach, and carried out on populations with formal musical training. Unsurprisingly, theories of Western music led the experiments, frequently carried out under controlled laboratory conditions, influenced by the early methods of experimental psychology (Wilhelm Wundt, 1832-1920). Thus, following the path of William James (another key figure in modern psychology), it became increasingly necessary to understand what people do with music and what it means to them in everyday life. This is the focus of Dr Lamont’s research.

Lamont explained how since the 80s, researchers aimed to explore findings in the cognitive domain using infants and children, as well as less musically trained populations and non-Western music cultures. They made interesting insights into human responses and the powerful print of musical enculturation (Trehub, Shellenberg & Kamenetsky, 1999). As a result, the neuroscientific approach developed widely from the 90s, using implicit measures to work out differences between people with and without musical training. A more naturalistic view: the interactive approach, was developed in parallel and was applied by Lamont, aiming to understand how children respond to music while playing exploratory and interactive musical tasks. Yet, in the last ten years, research has been mostly lab-based (Tirovolas & Levitin, 2011), and heavily influenced by cognitive experimental psychology.

In the following, we walk through some different directions of qualitative research in music psychology, focusing on people’s narrative experiences of music, their everyday life experiences and the effect of these on their music perception.


  • Turn to Narrative 

Lamont introduced us to the first of three possible approaches to music psychology qualitative research – the narrative. This essentially refers to the ability to verbalise your predisposition to a subject, in this case: music. But do untrained musicians possess the appropriate vocabulary to do this? Wolpert (2000) found that only 40% of non-musicians were able to differentiate a transposed accompaniment of a song from the original while 60% struggled to detect anything at all. Nevertheless, Lamont assured us that a lack of musical vocabulary does not stop musical conversations from happening.

Music can actually be a great ice-breaker, allowing strangers to become acquainted (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). And semi-structured interviews have offered Greasley, Lamont & Sloboda (2013) a deeper insight into the effects of engagement and participants’ ability to talk about their own music collections at length. A rare few who were less engaged had greater difficulty articulating what music meant to them more personally. Lamont’s own interests in similar research developed towards qualitatively interviewing those who weren’t particularly musically active. Musical participation will never be limited to trained musicians. She mentioned Gabrielsson’s (2011) Strong Experiences of Music project (SEM), which asked participants:

Write about your strongest and most intense experience of music. 

No mention of emotion, no instructions more detailed than that – complete narrative freedom. As a result, there was expected feedback (‘it was not until they played one particular song … that the intensity of their music hit me.’) … some less expected … (‘The intensity also left quickly, but in general my mood changed in a positive way.’) … and others completely unexpected, to say the least… (‘[I made] a conscious decision to end my relationship … the song and mood had such a profound effect on me.’)


  • Turn to Everyday 

In today’s age, music can be heard frequently in daily life, e.g. at home, in shops, restaurants, etc, and can induce certain moods but also exist in the background of your main activities. Yet it differs from the emotional and sentimental associations of a piece of music or a music concert, for example. Studies show that music is widely used to simply pass time (Greasley & Lamont, 2011). With the fast growing awareness of how music surrounds the general public, more in-depth research is needed to reveal the mechanisms through which everyday music affects emotional wellbeing.

Some studies (Sloboda, 2010) believe that the purpose of studying music listening in everyday life is to explore the ways in which listening experiences induce emotions and condition individuals. According to Sloboda (2010), everyday music is widely encountered but often forgettable. However, the majority of people experience daily life with music in various genres and also in different places and technological enhancements (e.g. iPods, iPhones, etc.) have furthered possible methodology. Using automated text messages, Greasley & Lamont (2011) revealed that there are two types of listeners: less engaged and highly engaged listeners, and both differ on how they choose their music and for how many hours they listen. The former tend to listen for an average of 12 hours per week, less likely to self-select their music, and more likely to use music out of habit or to feel less lonely. The latter is decidedly the opposite with average listening existing around 21 hours per week, with self-chosen music to create a certain atmosphere for themselves. Music is clearly pervasive, and exists to fulfill numerous purposes in day-to-day living.


  • Turn to Context



Finally, Lamont turned our focus onto real-life context and its effects on music perception. The way people perceive, form and give meaning to their everyday experiences occur due to a complex web of interactions between stimuli and the environment in which they exist. Although context effects have been a known factor in cognitive psychology for many years (McClelland, 1991), investigating music perception in naturalistic conditions and not entirely artificial ones – like in laboratories – have offered great opportunities for deeper insights into the way people perceive their lived musical experiences.

Such studies in cognitive psychology are quite limited, however Lamont presented some noticeable ones, evidently influenced by theories of phenomenology and ethnographic methods in order to highlight the possible methodological approaches of natural context’s impact on cognitive processes. For example, North & Hargreaves (1996) asked people to discuss on the “where”, “when”, “with whom” and “why” of their musical experiences, whilst Groarke & Hogan (2016), generated a model associating functions of music listening with wellbeing, by asking a small number of people to reflect on the ways in which they engaged with music in different settings and compared them by age. More recently, Lamont, et al. (2017) pursued a case study of an older people’s choir, by exploiting qualitative research methods; i.e. interviews, observation, focus groups and participatory discussions. The study found that social relationships, meaning and accomplishment were the main reasons why older people chose to be part of this community choir (Lamont et al., 2017).  Moreover, for a recent project aiming to delve into the festival experience, Lamont herself employed participant-observation-methods by attending the event, and in doing so, literally put “psychology in the field” into practice.

Whilst there will always be drawbacks, such as the inability to gain full control over research conditions, there are new doors that technological developments are opening for the future. Music constantly surrounds us, and by being able to get as close to the phenomenon as we can, we gain invaluable insight. But of course, balance is the key. As Dr Lamont phrased it: we need William James as much as Wilhelm Wundt!


Written by: Ahmad Bin Abdul Latiff, Aspasia Papadimitriou, María Sánchez Moreno, and Sarah Hashim



Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music: Music is much more than just music. Oxford: Oxford University Press (translation of Gabrielsson, A., 2008, Starka musikupplevelser – Musik är mycket mer än bara music, Hedemora: Gidlunds).

Greasley, A. E., & Lamont, A. (2011). Exploring engagement with music in everyday life using experience sampling methodology. Musicae Scientiae, 15(1), 45-71.

Greasley, A. E., Lamont, A., & Sloboda, J. A. (2013). Exploring musical preferences: An in-depth study of adults’ liking for music in their personal 
collections. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 10(4), 402-427

Groarke, J. M., & Hogan, M.J. (2016). Enhancing wellbeing: An emerging model of the adaptive functions of music listening. Psychology of Music, 44(4), 769–791. DOI:

Lamont, A., Murray,    M., Hale, R. & Wright-Bevans, K. (2017). Singing in later life: the anatomy of a community choir. Psychology of Music. DOI:

McClelland, J. L. (1991). Stochastic interactive processes and the effect of context on perception. Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 1-44. DOI:

North, A.C. & Hargreaves, D.J. (1996). The effects of music on responses to a dining area, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 55-64. DOI:

Rentfrow, P. J. & Gosling, S. D. (2006). Message in a ballad: The role of musical preferences in interpersonal perception. Psychological Science, 17(3), 236-242.

Sloboda, J. (2010). Music in everyday life: the role of emotions. Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications, 493-514. URL:

Tirovolas, A., & Levitin, Daniel. (2011). Music Perception and Cognition Research from 1983 to 2010: A Categorical and Bibliometric Analysis of Empirical Articles in “Music Perception”. Music Perception, 29(1), 23-36.

Trehub, S., Schellenberg, E., Kamenetsky, S., & Carr, Thomas H. (1999). Infants’ and Adults’ Perception of Scale Structure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 25(4), 965-975.

Wolpert, R.S. (2000). Attention to Key in a Nondirected Music Listening Task: Musicians vs. Nonmusicians. Music Perception, 18(2), 225-230.

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