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Book Review

The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology

The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology
Susan Hallam, Ian Cross & Michael Thaut, editors
Oxford University Press, xiii + 585pp
ISBN-10: 0199298459
ISBN-13: 978-0199298457
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The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology is from the "Oxford Library of Psychology" series. The subject matter, of course, is music; but the discipline is squarely psychology. This is a strong combination in that the phenomena of musical perception, learning, composition, performance, analysis, processing and – ultimately – understanding and appreciation benefit significantly from the rigor of the "brain scientists" who have contributed to this timely book.

They're experts in their field… all 50 plus of them. The three editors, too – Susan Hallam from the widely-respected Institute of Education in London, Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Music and Science in the Cambridge University music faculty and Michael Thaut, Director at the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at Colorado State University – are better equipped than almost any other team to have assembled this very valuable book.

At 570 substantive pages it represents good value for money, despite its high price of $126. Nor is there any comparable volume, perhaps the closest being the Handbook of Music and Emotion (Juslin, Sloboda; also OUP ISBN-10: 0199230145 and ISBN-13: 978-0199230143); though this is more specific in scope. As is The Social Psychology of Music (Hargreaves, North; OUP again ISBN-10: 0198523831 and ISBN-13: 978-0198523833). The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology is broad in conception, clear in purpose, thorough in coverage of all relevant areas, and excellent in style and presentation.

Perhaps the key virtues that readers of The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology will experience is its comprehensive coverage of (issues in) the field. Necessarily (its chapters typically are a dozen pages long), the book is an overview. But this has two advantages. Firstly, it presents a summation of current thinking on such topics as tonal cognition, children as creative musical thinkers, sight reading, music and consumer behavior, music therapy, links between music and language, emotional response without attempting to superimpose a spurious narrative: this is a handbook and as such offers ways into these areas of thought. Significantly, each chapter has its own extensive bibliography with scholarly sources in print (books and journals) and on line. Secondly, such an overview sponsors a much greater all-round, holistic understanding of the main currents of thought, research and understanding than would a unified exegesis.

The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology is divided into eleven main parts. Each contains typically three or four discrete chapters (those in the parts on perception, performance, skill acquisition and everyday life have more, which is an indication of the center of gravity towards which the book subtly leans). They examine the origins and functions of music; Perception in music; Responses to music; The brain and music; Musical development from a pedagogical perspective; Learning musical skills; Performance; Composition and improvisation; The role of music in everyday life; Music therapy and conceptual frameworks. This is indeed comprehensive and spans discussion of almost the entire gamut of music and psychology from the intricacies of cognitive science to social psychology.

It will be noted that there is a bias towards pedagogy and learning: the experience of infants is discussed, for instance. It's also to be remembered that the principles of learning apply to all of us every time we encounter a new piece of music; or, it could be argued, every time we approach a familiar work looking for new revelations or new ways to make sense of and explain existing perceptions. So such an emphasis on cognition is entirely justified. In the pedagogical realm the contributing experts (each of the eleven parts has its own overseeing editor) of The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology are particularly strong. They implicitly answer many questions that we as music lovers may have about how music actually works. Very valuable for us as listeners, performers and composers – as well as, perhaps, music educators, for whom this book must be considered required reading. The book even covers dysfunction and "aberrant" phenomena, offering initial guidance on where to look for reasons and how to arrive at solutions to less than ideal musical experiences. But this is a reasonable emphasis given coverage of complementary areas in the chapters on music and emotion (by the same Patrik Juslin) and the whole section on perception, which examines such fascinating areas as how we experience pitch, timbre and have a memory for music, as well as the 80 pages or so (nearly 15% of the book) which examine the psychology of performance. Variety is no more lacking in this book's structure than is depth and authority.

The book is thick with diagrams, tables, photographs (of the brain, for instance, in color), graphs and or course musical examples. It's also well-presented in that there's plenty of white space, useful subheads and paragraphing. It's not an encyclopedia; but it is a scholarly, wholly academic text and as such benefits from the emphasis that editors and publishers have afforded to accessibility since its intended readership does include the non-specialist. In this sense too, it's a success, having happily managed to assemble material and arrange it in ways that allow you to dip in (again, this is a handbook) as well as work your way methodically through a part or the whole book in order to come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of how music functions as it does. Significantly, the authors include a very helpful and wholly reliable review of the literature for each of their fields, with the emphasis on recent studies.

If you cut your musical teeth on Carl Seashore's classic Psychology Of Music, which was first published almost a century ago in 1919 and haven't felt motivated to keep in touch and up to date with later thinking on the now much wider concerns in the field; and/or if you want actually to be surprised at just how sophisticated this thinking has come – particularly in the last quarter century or so; and particularly if you want what should be considered the leading single authority on the psychology of music (or, more accurately, the common ground which those two disciplines occupy and the ways in which greater appreciation of the latter is advanced by a knowledge of the former), then The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology is to be recommended without hesitation.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sealey.