Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Psychologists Do What Psychologists Do

Last August I found myself writing on my national site about John A. Sloboda and his 1985 book, The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music, on two consecutive days. I had been drawn to Sloboda because of a bold statement concluding the very first paragraph of his Preface:
It seemed, to me at least, that the psychology of music related rather little to what musicians actually did, and so was failing to tackle questions of central musical importance.
On the first of those days I elaborated on Sloboda's argument as a framework for discussing the shortcomings of a far more recent book, Music, Language, and the Brain, by Aniruddh D. Patel. The following day, however, I encountered a paper by Chia-Jung Tsay, who seemed far more inclined to honor his position (even if her paper still left certain matters open to question).

Since having read Sloboda's sentence and his elaboration on it, I have been reading a fair amount of the literature from psychologists. I have been struck by the fact that, while a quarter-century has elapsed since he nailed his thesis to the wall, most of the subsequent papers I have read have been blithely ignorant of it. I realized that Sloboda was fighting a losing battle.

Psychologists who decide to apply their expertise to music are still psychologists. That means that they are probably members of an academic Psychology Department, and most of them have to worry about publishing, particularly if they have not yet gotten tenure. In other words they have to produce material of value to their peers, and their peers are not musicians. Hence, they do what psychologists do: They collect data according to the approved practices of their profession and then analyze the data according to another set of approved practices. They then document the results of the analysis in a paper in a matter that will get it published. In other words, psychologists succeed in their profession by doing what other successful psychologists do.

Within that context, any significant impact on our knowledge of what musicians do is necessarily incidental and, most likely, will be accidental.

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