In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Music and Cognition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Review Articles
  • Journals
  • General Audience
  • Memory for Music, Music for Memory
  • Language and Music in Cognition
  • Learning and the Acquisition of Musical Skill
  • Music and Cognitive Disorders
  • Universals in Music Cognition

Music Music and Cognition
Ian Goldstein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0169


Music and cognition refers to the study of musical thinking. In basic terms, it seeks to understand the mental processes involved in listening to, creating, and performing music. Musical thinking is, however, a vast, complex issue that also implicates memory, emotion, language, culture, and the thinking body. To address such a highly interdisciplinary topic, articles in this entry draw mainly from music psychology, cognitive science, ethnomusicology, and music theory, complemented by work in related fields. Though publications in music psychology and neuroscience of music greatly outnumber contributions from the humanities, it is the intention of this article to present a balance of theoretical and methodological perspectives. Moreover, while scholarly methods, goals, and discourse often differ radically from one discipline to the next, there has been an increasing interest in cross-disciplinary dialogue in music and cognition research. Grouping scholarship by theme in this bibliography, as opposed to disciplinary approach, echoes that same intent. A bibliographic suite of sections follows this introduction, covering General Overviews, Reference Works, Review Articles, Journals, and popular works for a General Audience. The remaining sections take up a number of prominent research themes within music and cognition. Given music’s cognitive and social intricacies, rarely do scholars consider any single theme or aspect of music in total isolation. Instead, music-and-cognition research and theory often delights in productive pairings, such as emotion and perception, experience and meaning, movement and metaphor, and so on. Therefore, a recommended strategy in navigating this site is first to proceed to the desired headings, then conduct a keyword search, as topics will often appear under various headings. While not all themes find resonance across multiple disciplines, many do, indicating current or potentially new avenues for interdisciplinary investigation.

General Overviews

By way of an introduction to music and cognition, Grove’s entry “Psychology of Music” (Deutsch, et al. 2015) offers a fine entry point. The earliest book-length overviews come from music psychology as well. Dowling and Harwood 1986 and Sloboda 1985 are foundational textbooks, each written from a cognitive psychology perspective, with the former addressing many of the same topics in perception covered by Deutsch, et al. 2015. Zbikowski 2002 merits inclusion for addressing a central theme in cognitive music psychology—categorical organization in mental representation. Snyder 2000 presents the most comprehensive discussion of musical memory for a nontechnical audience. Thompson 2009 is among the most up-to-date of undergraduate-level music psychology textbooks. It is worth noting that, for the most part, the body of introductory and overview literature takes Western, tonal music as the basis of theory and experimentation. Cross-cultural efforts in music psychology, as well as ethnomusicological approaches, receive relatively scant attention in these works.

  • Deutsch, Diana, Alf Gabrielsson, John Sloboda, et al. “Psychology of Music.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root, 2015.

    Multiauthor overview by a collective of leading researchers, with sections devoted to main themes within 20th-century research. Though a single section, entitled “Perception and Cognition,” addresses cognitive research into pitch, rhythm, timbre, and memory, in truth all other sections of the article fall within the purview of music cognition scholarship. Available online by subscription.

  • Dowling, W. Jay, and Dane L. Harwood. Music Cognition. Orlando: Academic Press, 1986.

    Equal parts textbook and reference work, covering key concepts in music perception. Oriented more toward listening than performance, reflective of the authors’ research interests. Originally included an audiocassette! No known electronic publication or later editions.

  • Sloboda, John A. The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Landmark textbook in the early, foundational stages of cognitive psychology of music. Offers a highly readable narrative overview of linguistics-based and other conceptual theories of musical representation. Dated at this point, yet the topics—origins, music and language, performance, listening, development, cultural relativity—all remain quite relevant.

  • Sloboda, John A. Exploring the Musical Mind: Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198530121.001.0001

    Single-author collection, with chapter-length discussions of theoretical and practical concerns in music psychology research, by a seminal figure in the field. Both a curated compendium of the author’s work and an ideological guide to the field.

  • Snyder, Bob. Music and Memory: An Introduction. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000.

    Really two books in one. The first half offers an overview of how memory conditions acoustic perception and perceptual organization. Sections on grouping, short- and long-term memory, and especially schema theory are highly valuable in understanding mental representation in music cognition. The second half reflects more of the author’s own application of these concepts, exploring ideas about memory’s role in processing rhythm and melody, and in understanding large-scale form. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Thompson, William Forde. Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Highly readable textbook for a college course in music psychology, intended for the uninitiated. Wide coverage of major themes in music psychology, with one chapter on music and the brain. Companion website with audio examples.

  • Zbikowski, Lawrence M. Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis. AMS Studies in Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195140231.001.0001

    Comprehensive overview applying linguistic and cognitive science-based theories of categorical thinking to Western tonal music, with examples from Western classical music and jazz. Appeals most directly to music theorists, cognitive scientists, and musicians, yet generally accessible for nonspecialists in each of these fields.

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