The Mind of Music: Psychology of Musicians

Subject: Art
Pages: 36
Words: 9804
Reading time:
37 min
Study level: Undergraduate

This dissertation is aimed at exploring the psychology of musicians who perform. It looks at their artistic and professional development, their difficulties during learning, especially during their youth and how they acquire skills. It explores how they develop their talent and how they function when they work professionally. The project report is separated into three parts: ‘Musical Learning’: how musicians develop their musical skills and all about their development; “Practice” which examines practice strategies and techniques in music; and ‘Musical Performance’, all the various psychological issues. It looks at how emotion, motivation and performance and performance development and issues begin, how they escalate and eventually how they are either resolved or if not solved, the consequences which follow. Musicians are different from other people, because their chosen profession is very different. It follows that their development, both artistically and psychologically, is different also in many ways. It is hoped that by investigating the psychology behind their talent, how they learn, their psychological development we can learn how to support that development. If we know how different factors affect their development, impact their ability to perform and how their lives are thus affected we might learn something about musical or artistic development and, perhaps, even begin to understand why musicians take on such a daunting task. After all, it takes years to develop musical talent and the development must begin early as certain physical factors are involved for which there is a time limit within which the muscles, lungs, diaphragm and such must be trained.

Musical Learning

More of this study is devoted to musical learning than to the other two sections, because it was found during the research that this phase is the essential key to the others. The learning and developmental stage of a musician determines not only the professional future of the musician, but also the degree of satisfaction he or she will have from that future. Musical learning is both more basic and more complex than any other kind of learning. It requires both sides of the brain to operate in concert with certain other body parts, such as hands, lips, arms and eyes, depending upon which instrument the student elects to study. At the same time, music education has been found to enhance all other learning, especially mathematical and linguistic education. By integrating functions, we utilize the natural design of the brain to make learning faster, easier and more engaging. (Caine, Caine, & Crowell, 1994; Campbell, 1986; Healy, 1994; Howard, 1994; Williams, 1983). It is a subject of much research the actual value of musical education, even when the students do not exhibit a special talent, simply because it seems that the study of music has profound impact upon other learning.

“Music synchronizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Researchers report that the left hemisphere analyzes the structure of music, while the right hemisphere focuses on the melody (Breitling, Guenther,” (Davies 2000, 148)

So one side of the brain figures out how to move the hands while playing piano while the other side listens to make sure it is right.

When we consider this we can see that music education is an amazing tool, since many other types of learning are balanced with an emphasis on either one or the other side of the brain. By contrast, neurological foundations of music perception, performance, and learning are evenly and widely distributed in both hemispheres, using both sides of the brain almost equally. Performance involves motor, somato-sensory, and auditory areas of the brain. That is to say it involves the brain parts which control movement, emotionally responsive sensation and hearing. These are special sections and they show higher activity when musicians practice. With a help of a musical instrument practice the amount of nerve tissue can be increased, that is brain matter, devoted to the various tasks. It was found that too much repetitive practice will degrade motor memory and voluntary control of movements, which is identified as musician’s cramp. However, this would only apply to the repeated practicing of the same exact music over an extended period of time. That is generally not done, with the exception of doing scales, since it is far too boring to force upon the student. After all, we need to help them stay motivated. Neuronal networks established during music learning are larger in musicians with early training. (AltenmÜller, and Gruhn 2002, 63) That is, music students actually develop more nerve connections in the brain which means that the transfer of information has more connections to use. This is really important, because it is not the brain size or the number of brain cells which makes one smarter or develops certain skills, but rather, it is the connections between the brain cells, called synapses, that counts, This can be really important in music, especially with very complex instruments like thepiano, since much of the playing becomes almost automatic.

Brain wave and brain activity analyses using electroencephalography (EEG), which makes it possible to directly measure the electrical activity of the neurons in the cerebral cortex, the front part of the brain. Magnetoencephalography (MEG), which enables the assessment of brain metabolism, cerebral blood flow, and oxygen consumption of nerve cells allows for indirect analysis of neuronal activity based upon oxygen consumption and the firing activities of nerve cells. What this means is that we can use an EEG to measure the firing of the nerve cells in the brain and also use MEG to measure the blood and oxygen flow to the different parts of the brain in order to measure and understand brain metabolism and activity. Local increases of blood flow can be assessed by measuring oxygen or glucose in the blood flow. While positron emission tomography (PET) uses this kind of data collection, it cannot be widely used for research due to the requirement of low dosages of radioactivity. It is generally not acceptable to inject radioactive material into the living brain of a living person for experimental research, since that is dangerous, and we have no idea how dangerous, to the subject under study. It is better to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures the magnetic properties of oxygen in blood cells to calculate oxygen consumption by the brain. (Gembris, and Davidson 2002, 64) In any of these, there is still little being actually done with musicians in this way, since it requires volunteers and musicians are generally very busy.

Learning music has been found to actually reorganize the brain, just as foreign language was found to reorganize a portion of the brain that was missing in people who did not learn a foreign language before about age twelve. The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) was developed to explain this. Penfield maintained that the plasticity of the brain is lost “at puberty, after which complete or native-like mastery of languages, first or second, is difficult and unlikely.” (Genesee 98) We know little about the plasticity of the brain as regards musical ability and musical training. However, since musical performance requires much more than just brain development, there is still a definable timetable dictated by the need to develop motor skills and breathing. For example, string musicians must start earlier than those on other types of instruments to reach the same level of expertise at the same age. A pianists hands lose flexibility with age unless training is begun early.

“As mentioned earlier, the brain has the potential to reorganize its neural networks, in both the short and the long term, in response to experience and learning. Of the entire sensory system, the auditory system seems to be particularly adaptive. This is illustrated by the adaptation that results from routine ear training of musicians or the adaptation that follows experience with atypical acoustic stimuli.” (AltenmÜller, and Gruhn 2002, 72)

So, both factors seem to be involved: the actual increased neural development and the plasticity factor which reorganizes brain functions.

“Music performance at a professional level is one of the most demanding tasks for the human central nervous system. It involves the precise execution of very fast and, in many instances, extremely complex physical movements under continuous auditory feedback. A further aspect of music performance—although not specifically addressed in this chapter—is the involvement of emotional experiences.” (AltenmÜller, and Gruhn 2002, 63)

An interesting consequence of all of this is the additional learning capacity for other typos of learning which seems to develop in tandem with learning music. “Many researchers have observed that the learning of music contributes to preschool-age children’s awakening to different subject matters, particularly to reading and writing (Cutietta, 1995, 1996; Ribiere-Raverlat, 1997). Some studies have shown that young children who do better in melodic perception tasks (1) also obtain perform better in phonological awareness and pre-reading tests (Lamb 2002) Anvari et al. (2002) found that phonological awareness and pre-reading scores were closely related to musical aptitudes. (Bolduc 2008) This seems to explain why artistic people, especially musicians, seem to have better abilities in all areas, not just their particular area. They are the ones who get the lessons in these times of educational austerity when schools are cutting music and art from the curriculum. All the arts have some of these brain functions and behaviors in common, especially the balanced brain activity which has been observed for musicians. This suggests that music education is especially important in the early primary grades.

Identifying Talent

A great deal of research has been devoted to this area in an effort to improve the early identification of those with musical talent. This is because the early start, especially in strings, is desirable for starting a career on time. Prospective parents started doing things to try to influence the child in the womb once it was shown that the baby actually interacts with its environment and can hear and feel what is going on while still in the mothers womb. These ranged from playing classical music with a speaker on the mothers abdomen to reciting poetry or reading aloud to the fetus. “A major factor in this is the stress hormones, growth hormones, and nutrients that are absorbed by the child through the placenta (Seckl, 1998). Infants are able to hear music and speech several weeks prior to their birth and can recognize these after birth (e.g., Satt, 1984; DeCaspar” (Gembris, and Davidson 2002, 20)

“Like Howe, Cattell (1971) also maintained that the close analysis of any musical ability is impossible without an understanding of three “modalities”: ability, personality, and motivation.” (Kemp, and Mills 2002, 5) “Over the last 35 years Edwin Gordon (1965, 1971, 1982) has developed tests that are used mainly in the United States, and range from Audie, a game for children aged 3–4 years, through the Music Aptitude Profile, which is intended for children aged 11–18 years, to the Advanced Measures of Music Audiation, which are designed to be used as college entrance tests.” (Kemp, and Mills 2002, 5) Yet, the only really practical method for identifying talent remains as the opportunity to learn music. Perhaps this may be due to the requirement for motivation which is discussed later.

This research is also aimed at identifying those factors which constitute or contribute to musical talent. “Biological evidence indicates that genetic factors influence general development in three broad ways: maturational staged development, physical capacity, and mental capacity (Bee, 1992; Plomin & DeFries, 1999). These can be describe simply as linear development in stages, development of physical skills and intellectual development. One of the major developments early on is excellent hand and eye dexterity as a child grows, so an eight-year-old child is better able to coordinate bow and string in violin playing than a three-year-old. This is part of the stages of maturation. Some physical factors also apply. ¨People with wide hand spans have a physical advantage to develop as pianists over those with small hand spans. Generally, some people can perform mental tasks such as problem solving more readily than others. They may be able, therefore, to identify musical patterns more quickly and thus carry out aural discrimination tasks more rapidly.” (Gembris, and Davidson 2002, 18) However, there has not, as yet, been developed any reliable method for identifying musical talent other than simply offering musical education. Even these small differences seem to be of little real consequence over all. Musical talent is just made up of qualities which are, so far, not easy to measure. However, it should be noted that the benefits of early musical education have been measured and there is a deference.

In addition, we know that the initial bonding experience with music that musicians seem to have in common has a definite impact upon what the musician does after that, even when opportunities for music education seem not to be in evidence. From interviews with musicians it was noted that many remembered an experience in early childhood that connected them with music in an intimate way.

Walters and Gardner (1992) have described these as crystallizing experiences and attempt to explain them as overt reactions to a quality or feature of an occurrence that yields an immediate change in individuals’ concept formation, their performance within it, and self-concept. Such powerfully charged experiences appear to have a lasting impact upon the individual, leaving him or her in a highly motivated state that may last a lifetime.(Kemp, and Mills 2002, 10)

This tended to increase motivation which led to more involvement and higher levels of interest, thus increasing commitment. “The highest achieving students were those who expressed a long-term commitment to playing, coupled with high levels of practice.” (O’Neill, and Mcpherson 2002, 33) “Current theories view motivation as an integral part of learning that assists students in acquiring the range of adaptive behaviors that will provide them with the best chance of achieving their own personal goals.” (O’Neill, and Mcpherson 2002, 31) It may, in fact, be wholly responsible for the formation of those goals. However, the type of motivation was important also. Extrinsic motivation prompted by parental approval or rewards can get the required practice from students, but that practice does not seem to be nearly as valuable as the voluntary practice of students motivated by their own enjoyment.

“A student who plays an instrument exclusively for the pleasure of performing with an ensemble will value music performance differently from a student whose intention is to become a professional musician.” (O’Neill, and Mcpherson 2002, 32)

This is what makes that bond with music important. I have interviewed many people who had music lessons in childhood, but only those who tell me that they practiced of their own volition are still playing the instrument they studied, still learning and still enjoying this experience as much as some might enjoy a gourmet meal or a marvelous chocolate truffle. We can logically expect this to extend to processional musicians even more profoundly.

Identifying the young adept is still not easy. So far, giving music education seems to be the only certain method for identifying talent. (Horowitz 1998) found that those with artistic talent may daydream a little more than ordinary children, but their daydreams were rather commonplace, not unusual at all. What was unusual was that these people felt compelled to find a way to express those daydreams. In interviewing a couple of my artistic friends, I asked this question and they all agreed with this assessment, saying that this was certainly part of why they played, painted or did other expressive activities..

Development of Musical Ability

While development of musical ability is easily predicted to be governed by much the same factors as the development of other abilities, musical ability development depends upon some additional factors. The usual practice and feedback must be present and instruction certainly helps. However, more than with other non arts subjects, intrinsic motivation seems to be necessary for the musician to develop to performance level. One can learn arithmetic without loving it. However, it seems that if one does not love ones music, then learning to perform it well is nearly impossible.

“Research also suggests that young musicians as an overall group tend to be dependent types, depending upon their parents and teachers in the early stages. However, this research also indicates that those individuals who make most headway and who are likely to emerge as professional musicians are very much more inclined to be independent (Kemp, 1995).” (Kemp, and Mills 2002, 13)

In fact, musicians have to be self motivated and self actuated in order to attain any sort of prominence, even locally, since it is this that prompts them to practice and attend rehearsals and focus on their music.

Musicians realize that they have talent beyond most others, but they also realize that this is not enough. It is not a free ride to success. Talent is only the beginning. In this case, attitude is everything and the depth of the attachment the musician feels for the music is of paramount importance. In a set of interviews with students, Vispoel and Austin (1993) found that junior high school students who judged the failure of a fictitious music student to be a result of insufficient effort or poor learning strategies were more likely to expect improvement in their own future performance than were students who pointed to lack of ability as responsible. It is in avoiding the placement of blame upon uncontrollable circumstances which pushes students to push themselves to excellence. Unlike some other vocations, musicians almost always have to devote a great deal of time and energy to perfecting their art even during their formative years, and this is known ahead of time. Perhaps that explains why they must be very emotionally attached to their music or their instrument.

“It is possible that motivational patterns may influence children’s skill development much sooner in instrumental music learning than in other subject areas. During the initial stages of learning to play a musical instrument there are many challenges to overcome (e.g., posture, position, rhythm, tone, notation).” (O’Neill, and Mcpherson 2002, 38)

Researchers have been looking at important motivational differences when children practice repertoire assigned by their teacher rather than pieces they have chosen themselves. Sloboda and Davidson (1996) found that successful musicians spend much more time at formal practice, such as scales, pieces, and technical exercises, than their less successful peers. They also report more informal practice, such as playing their favorite pieces by ear, “messing about, ” or improvising. Sloboda and Davidson suggest that this allows them to strike the right balance between freedom and discipline. Renwick and McPherson (2000) found that the time spent practicing a piece chosen by the student was eleven times higher than for music assigned by the teacher. This would seem to suggest that teachers ought to allow students to choose among appropriate pieces.

Teaching methodology is another question under examination. Methods like Suzuki method are very useful in young students. “From the second half of the twentieth century, Suzuki advocated (1981) that a child’s musical education must begin as early as possible and be based on rote learning” (Mcpherson, and Gabrielsson 2002, 101) They depend upon rote memorization and do not include notation reading. “the Suzuki approach and the Pace Method are excellent ways to promote very early engagement and to encourage practice and creativity—but it seems important to begin before the age of 5 years.” (Gembris, and Davidson 2002, 26) This establishes early success and a usable product in which the student can take ownership and pride. Too much repetitive exercise and technical learning, such as reading notation at this early stage may actually drive students away, as they make music learning appear difficult or boring before the student has the chance to enjoy the pleasure of successful performance.

The young student needs to really value music learning or it just does not work. This is known as expectancy-value theory, and it tells us about the value which children, or anyone, places upon learning an instrument. The younger the student the more it requires that the student be able to produce something recognizable as music extremely soon, since young children simply do not have the tolerance for delayed reward which older and adult students will have.. Besiudes, the development of self-efficacy constructs is crucial to the child performer’s development as a musician. The development of self confidence in the young child, especially when faced with the extreme stress associated with public performance is a critical development, which cannot happen until the child can play something they value with competence and confidence. Young children simply do not have the tolerance for distant rewards.

Learning music seems to require that both the process and the result be pleasurable, or at least, not be odious. This is possibly due to the nature of the product, which is supposed to create a pleasurable experience. When learning other subjects the object is not what is learned, which generally must be applied to be particularly valuable, but in learning music, the music is the object, and it requires application of all the subtle movements that one learns in order to produce that music. This is one reason that very young children should not be burdened with too many boring repetitive tasks or with learning notation. This is not to say that the music cannot be there in front of them, but simple tunes can be memorized and the music becomes a reminder of what they learned. In this way, young children will learn to read music as they need to in order to remember what they want to play, and this is due more to intrinsic motivation than to extrinsic, i.e. to please the teacher. “In Suzuki’s view, notation is only appropriate when it can be beneficial, such as when the music becomes so complex that children need a symbol system to help prepare their performance.” (Landers, 1980).

It is essential that young children get positive feedback so that they learn to value the practice which elicits that feedback. Even when children make a mistake, it is essential that criticism be kept positive while showing the student how to make the corrections. In addition, “research continually points to the crucial role parents play in nurturing children’s musical development in early childhood (Custodero, 2006; Feierabend, 1990; Gembris” (De Vries 2007) If the child is burdened with too much work that does not directly produce recognizable music, he or she may not persevere long enough to get positive feedback for producing music. So, too many practice scales and such or a too strong emphasis upon learning notation becomes counter-productive. The notation should be there, but it should be introduced as a way of remembering what they learn and not made the object of the learning. The child will learn it when it becomes useful to him or her.

Mcpherson, and Gabrielsson (2002 113) noted that emphasizing notational skills too early can interfere with the natural learning which goes on with young children as they observe the patterns in the music to which they listen and which they play. Once they have identified the patterns by ear, this will actually aid with the acquisition of theory as it connects to something which they have already observed independently. Notational skills should, therefore, never be taught before the child has learned theory from experience. It is not necessary for the child to have all the right words to be able to identify patterns in music and once discovered, putting a name to them is easier than trying to identify what applies to a name taught separately. Stressing notation and other theory in lieu of actual playing is counterproductive.

Learning music begins far before the actual music lessons commence. Just exposing children to music early becomes learning, even though it is passive, for the most part. Children with genuine talent will bond to music which excites or creates pleasure for them and start paying attention to nuances unconsciously, listening for certain pleasurable sounds. This author recalls being particularly entranced with the sounds of harmonicas and woodwinds, especially clarinet, oboe and bassoon. This preference is still in evidence. How much more might it be for an especially gifted child?

“Obviously, a great deal of music learning takes place prior to formal lessons, and even very young children will come to their lessons having heard a vast amount of music in their everyday lives. However, the extent of a 6-year-old child’s knowledge about how music can be represented in notation will typically be nowhere near the level of his or her understanding of how language can be represented in print.” (Mcpherson, and Gabrielsson 2002, 110)

So learning by rote when very young is actually a good thing, but eventually there comes a time when memorization creates a cognitive overload. In addition, rote learning does not require deep understanding of the material, so it eventually falls short. (Aiello, 1999; Hallam, 1997)

Mcpherson and Gabrielson (2002 107) described variables related to the quality and quantity of the students’ early exposure to music. They investigated how frequently they improvised or played by ear, as well as whether they were electing classroom music at school in which they might learn to compose or where composing was an important component. Students who reported higher levels of practice were more likely to report higher levels of informal musical activities too.

“Furthermore, learning how to improvise can be helpful for memorizing music because improvisation requires having internalized the characteristics of a particular musical style to the point of being able to create a novel piece spontaneously” (Aiello, and Williamon 2002, 177)

So in development students must practice. However, it has been noted previously that practicing assigned music gets less time than practicing music picked by the student. In addition, practicing exercises and scales for the young student should be kept to a minimum, so that the student does not become bored. Also, it has been found that practice should be distributed over time and not crammed for it to have its greatest effect. (Oxendine, 1984): It is also better for long term retention that the proficiency be developed over a longer time. (Barry, and Hallam 2002, 152)

Flow theory (O’Neill, and Mcpherson 2002, 43) suggests that activities which are practiced are more enjoyable when the challenge matches the musician’s skill very well. If the material is too easy, the student becomes bored and may not apply enough effort. If the material is too difficult, the student becomes frustrated. It is suggested that a mix of easy, moderately difficult and very difficult be used, with very little on either extreme end, in order to optimize both interest and enjoyment. Frankly, anything the student does not enjoy doing, at least a little, should be kept to an absolute minimum. Music must be enjoyed to be truly valued.

This is Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) flow theory, which suggests that the optimal practice experience strikes an equal balance between material of perceived challenge and skill which requires intense concentration. Practicing is pleasurable when the challenge is matched to the person’s skill levels. If the material is too primitive and mastery levels are superior, ennui follows; if an activity is too difficult and skill levels are low, anxiety follows; if both challenge and skill levels are low, students stop caring. “To remain in flow, the complexity of the activity must increase by developing new skills and taking on new challenges. Flow experience is characterized by the presence of clear goals and unambiguous feedback, focused concentration, a sense of outcomes under the person’s own control, a distorted sense of time (e.g., an hour of practice seems to go by quickly), losing a sense of self-awareness, and experiencing the activity as intrinsically rewarding,” (see also Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde (O’Neill, and Mcpherson 2002, 35)

Beyond the selection of appropriate material, it seems to be equally important for students to improvise or “fool around”. Although psychological research suggests the possible division of conscious control between two different aspects (Heuer, 1996; Pashler & Johnston, 1998), many improvisers who were interviewed in a study interviewed reported that they can really only consciously monitor one aspect of music at a time, either the performance of the piece or the actual movements required to produce it. That is, they cannot multitask, if such a thing really exists. It is possible that we do not multitask at all, but that we simply uni-task several tasks and weave these together, switching rapidly among several tasks. When improvising musicians shift concentration from mechanical to aesthetic. (Heuer, 1996), concentrating only fractions of a second at a time on each part. Teaching improvisation, as a result, becomes even more difficult, since the most that can really be done is to watch and listen and then constructively criticise, perhaps even recording so that the student can hear the results. It is tricky, since it seems to be without conscious control. So one has to depend upon each subsequent session of practice at improvisation to improve upon the previous sessions by means of learning what did not work. (Gellrich, 1995).

The latest research in music psychology has suggested that the pedagogy or methodology of teaching improvisation, is wide-ranging and interdisciplinary. It seems to work best when the best aspects of deliberate practice are mixed with risk taking exercises and group creativity. The teaching of improvisation needs a great deal more study as reflected in two recent monographs dedicated to improvisation, both of which reflect its dynamic, multifaceted, and interdisciplinary concerns (Nettle & Russell, 1998; Sawyer, 1997). After all, how does one teach people to “fool around”? Perhaps the best we can do is to teach them to value improvisation.

“When improvisers talk about their music, they often draw upon linguistic metaphors grounded in communication or rhetoric (Berliner, 1994; Monson, 1996). The culturally agreed upon constraints that make this spontaneous rhetoric possible distinguishes improvisation from most other forms of music making.” (Kenny, and Gellrich 2002, 117)

Learning how to perform music musically processes from conditioning the best possible development of motor skills but also includes different types of representation (aural, visual, sensorimotor) into a more complex neuronal network, according to AltenmÜller, and Gruhn (2002, 80)

“In “learning music musically” (Gruhn, 1997; Swanwick, 1999)—that is, in establishing genuine musical representations—singing and moving should be involved to enhance the aural-oral loop. As demonstrated by Bangert, Parlitz, and Altenmüller (1998), learning results in a network of coactivation where, at the very least, visual, sensory-motor, and aural representations are linked together.” (AltenmÜller, and Gruhn 2002, 79)

Learning to express one’s self in playing seems to something which cannot be taught. The musician feels the music. Guidance is provided by the composer in the notation of how to play a certain section. Speed and intensity are noted along with volume and even some small notes on style, but it requires that the performer actually feel the music in order to interpret it and communicate their feelings to the audience. This is, perhaps, why musicians say that they enjoy practicing, because each time they play the music they experience it. “Thus there seems to exist an innate code for acoustical communication of emotion, which could explain why emotional expression is often regarded by music teachers as instinctive.” (Juslin, and Persson 2002, 225)

“There is no technique to perform expressively. You have to use your soul” (cited in Woody, 2000, p. 21).

Studies have shown that expressive skills can be improved by training (Marchand, 1975; Juslin & Laukka, 2000; Woody, 1999). They are also guided by the conductor, if there is one. Feedback is another important facet of expression. While nobody could describe how they knew, the performers interviewed all agreed that they know how the audience is responding even before any applause is heard. The reason for having a conductor is to have a unity of interpretation, a way of insuring that the musicians are all projecting the same emotional content in their performance.

The Importance and Strategies of Practice for Musicians

Practice in music is not something done only by students. It is something which all musicians do for their entire lives. It is actually pleasurable for most: all of those with whom this researcher spoke confirmed this. While many professions require no further practice beyond the initial learning stages, since the learned material is refreshed every time it is applied, music is different, much the same as acting, dance or other performance. Musicians practice to keep fingers limber, bodies accustomed to moving in certain ways and the memory constantly refreshed. However, even pieces not played for years may be instantly recalled if sufficient practice was done. Practice replaces performance. One simply does not spend all day every day performing, and performance generally does not provide enough practice on its own to keep the skills at the level desired.

Many professional pianists report that they unconsciously play along with their fingers when listening to piano music, that is, their fingers move as if they were playing. This points to the strong linkage between auditory and sensory-motor cortical regions which is identified in research as developing in musicians. This points to idea that pianists may not pay as much attention to the motor movements as they do to the music itself. In interviewing some local musicians, this researcher discovered that most of them stated that they simply played when they practices, enjoying the music and stopping to work separately on portions which seemed to be problematic. One musician said, “I will isolate that part which is not working right and play it over and over again until my fingers learn it.” Another stated that when she forgets a part, she simply plays it very fast and her fingers remember.

Chaffin (XXXX) identified the additional purpose of practice can be to memorize music for performance. Memorization seems to takes place as practice proceeds. However, musicians may also adopt additional strategies in order to consolidate their learning, especially for longer, more complex music. (Barry, and Hallam 2002, 157) Some musicians report that memorization is more or less automatic as they practice, while others have to use a set of strategies aimed at increasing the speed of memorization. Lehmann & Ericsson (1996) found that sight readers learned memorized more quickly than less-skilled readers.

It is well known that musicians use mnemonics extensively to remember the formal structure of a piece. (Aiello, and Williamon 2002, 172) During the last century, several pianists and piano pedagogues have written on how to memorize music. Matthay (1913, 1926), Hughes (1915), and Gieseking and Leimer (1932/1972) suggested three types of strategies: aural, visual, and kinesthetic. Aural memory (i.e., auditory memory) allows the musician to anticipate what is coming in a piece of music and also evaluate the performance. Visual memory uses images of the pages and other environmental factors, such as changes in the descriptive directives for performance on the page or patterns of arpeggios etc. Pianists, harpists and other player of instruments for which there are multiple fingers used, may remember the patterns of the fingers or even the visual pattern of the movement of the fingers during performance. Kinesthetic memory (i.e., finger, muscular, or tactile memory) , mentioned above by a musician when she pointed out that her fingers remembered, helps performers to execute complex motor sequences automatically. It is like dancing, not consciously thought about, but the whole physical experience is remembered. It is right when the sequence feels right. “For pianists, it is facilitated by extended training of the fingers, wrists, and arms and can exist in two forms: (1) position and movement from note to note and (2) sense of key resistance.” (Hughes, 1915). However, all of these students agreed that there is really no way of consciously memorizing music. One simply memorizes by playing.

Paderewsky made an interesting statement concerning practice:

If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski, An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music

Several studies have looked at how musicians learn new material. These studies (Chaffin & Imreh, 1997; Hallam 1995a, 1995b, 1997a; Miklaszewski, 1989, 1995; Wicinski, 1950) taken together suggest the following:

Most musicians tend to study the sheet music before beginning to practice or in the early stages of practice of a new work’ They often “hear” the music as they read inside their heads, just as some readers hear a voice when they read.
The structure of the material is usually divided into different sections for practice, each being taken in isolation , generally beginning with the easiest and progressing to the most difficult..
The more complex the material is, the smaller each section will be.
After practice, perhaps several, the sections become larger as some are combined.
A hierarchical structure appears to develop, as the musician gets an idea of the whole with each section building upon the previous section. This is based upon the musical rather than technical considerations.
How musicians practice varies widely.
Musicians approach the task of learning contemporary works differently from that of learning more traditional music. They generally find contemporary music more difficult and place greater emphasis upon cognitive strategies. (Miklaszewski, 1995; Hallam, 1995b).

Some Strategies for Practice

The following emerged concerning practice strategies during the research for this paper:

  • Metacognition is important: the musician must be intellectually involved in the process of practicing and related physical and mental processes. The musician must be consciously aware of thought processes while practicing.
  • One must approach practice systematically. Haphazard practice is worse than worthless. Practice is more effective when it is structured and goal-oriented.
  • Musicians must engage in mental practice (cognitive rehearsal) in combination with physical practice. The scores should be studies and analyzed ahead if time, particularly when beginning a new piece.
  • Regular practice sessions with several relatively short sessions distributed across time work best. Practicing all at once is far less effective given the same amount of time devoted to it than regular practice over time..
  • It is necessary that the musician understand that the price of perfect performance is practice.
  • Motivation is of prime importance. Motivation increases when the musician has some choice in the music.
  • Modelling is important, even though no two musicians will execute the same material exactly the same. Listening to different performances of the same music can educate the musician to the various nuances of expression. This is particularly important for beginning musicians. Parents and teachers need a library of fine recordings and should share them often with developing musicians.
  • Young musicians need support from teachers, parents and even friends.

The Psychology of Performance

Performance is why musicians study and practice. It is the reason they spend endless hours in learning while developing and perfecting once the professional level is reached. For this section a number of interviews were conducted with musicians who performed. It was a small group, but the research backs up what was found. The aim of the interviews was to understand how performers feel before, during and after a performance. The emotional response patterns seems to be a major reason musicians become musicians. They enjoy the music as they practice and learn. They share this enjoyment with an audience and they share in the response of the audience. Music is universally an emotional experience. There is no other reason to create and perform it. Even in medieval times, when music was considered to be only for praising God, it still carried a tremendous emotional impact. While not much has ever been said about angels dancing or creating visual art or poetry, they have often been characterized as wonderful singers with heavenly voices.

Seven musicians were interviewed, as that was the total who responded favourably to the idea. (An eighth due to time constraints.) Interviews were informal and not recorded, since opportunity was generally brief and immediate. Each of the musicians interviewed were asked the following questions. The results are summarized here.

  1. Please briefly describe what you do.
  2. When did you know that you loved music?
  3. Do you remember any particular incident in childhood that seemed to make music important to you? What happened?
  4. How did you feel about practicing when you were first learning?
  5. How did your teacher teach you?
  6. Why did you pick your instrument?
  7. How much do you practice now?
  8. What do you feel when you are practicing?
  9. What do you feel when you are performing?
  10. Do you get stage fright? Please describe it.
  11. What about mistakes, do you make many during performance?
  12. Did you ever consider doing something else?

Summary of the Interniews:

  1. Briefly describe what you do:

Three people played in small ensembles in night clubs: one string bassist, one keyboardist and one guitarist. Two played in local symphony orchestras: one cellist and one French horn player. Two played in travelling shows: one drummer and one pianist

  1. When did you know that you loved music?

All responded that they were quite young, but did not exactly remember how old. The consensus was that they had always loved music.

  1. Do you remember any particular incident in childhood that seemed to make music important to you? What happened?

Several of these stories were interesting. The cellist and the symphony pianist both said they fell in love with the instrument from hearing a solo. The guitarist said he had a relative who played and let him “fool around” with the instrument. The drummer said that he remembered listening to Skitch Henderson on recordings and used to imitate him using whatever was at hand. He said he drove his mother nuts stealing her pots and banging on them until somebody bought him a drum and then a set of drums when he sounded good on one. They all remembered some incident from youth where a piece was particularly beautiful. The French horn player said she had initially liked the sound of the oboe, but that in school it was not available. She started lessons in grammar school, and was in an orchestra in junior high school. By high school she was hooked. She would still like to learn the oboe some day. The pianists both began lessons quite young, but one loved classical and the other preferred jazz. The string bass player said he liked the instrument after seeing a comedy which involved a string bass player and somebody hiding in the case. He was not sure what the film was, but he asked his father to show him a string bass. They went to the local music store and the boy was intrigued by an instrument much bigger than he was. He started lessons on a cello and moved to the bass later. He didn’t really learn to pluck until he was in junior high school and got involved in a jazz group.

  1. How did you feel about practicing when you were first learning?

The consensus here backs up the research. Each one said they liked practicing, but preferred it when they got to pick what they would practice. One of the pianists remembered hating the scales, but spent extra time fooling around with them and making all sorts of patterns. The guitarist said he remembered that it used to hurt his fingers, but after a while they got stronger and it stopped hurting. All of them spent extra time on stuff they picked for themselves. It seems that none of them were restricted to playing only what was chosen for them, just as long as they practiced enough.

  1. How did your teacher teach you?

There was a great deal of variation here. Most had some very formal lessons but some had just supervised practice sessions. The average student studied more than ten years. The two pianists studied the longest: 14 and 16 years. The string bassist studied his instrument only nine years, but he studied cello for three years first. Two remembered teachers who were very exacting in the mechanics, but just were not very interesting. All of them remembered using books and listening to music a lot.

  1. Why did you pick your instrument?

The cellist and one pianist (with the symphony) said it was the sound of the instrument, The French horn player said she preffered the sound of the oboe, and other woodwinds, but that they were not available when she was offered lessons. She said that she could have chosen clarinet, but that there were already three so she took the horn that nobody wanted, because they could not get a sound out of it and she could. The drummer said he had no idea, because he made the choice so young. The bassist, as mentioned earlier, chose it for the size and looks, but really liked the sound too. He and the cellist remembered having an instrument that was smaller than a full size. The other pianist said he did not ever think about any other instrument, because he learned young and was good at it. The guitarist said he just really liked the guitar his uncle had and learned it so easily that he never really considered switching. None have plans to switch, but the French horn player would like to learn other horns, especially woodwinds. However, she is not sure that this would be practical since the method for playing is so different vibration versus reed.

  1. How much do you practice now?

Practice ranges from three to seven hours per day on average. This does not count rehearsals. They all agree that they like or love to practice.

  1. What do you feel when you are practicing?

They all say that practice is just playing, experiencing the music. Some mentioned that when they practice they pick pieces they will not be performing soon just to add variety and to keep up skills particular to those pieces, or just because they love that particular music. Practice is very private to them. They just enjoy time with their instrument and their music. The French horn player said she likes to use recordings with French horn missing and then fill it in for new stuff.

  1. What do you feel when you are performing?

Excited was the most often used word. Nervous was also there. All of them agreed that they do not really think about it at all, but they just play. They communicate with the audience. The two in the symphony said they feel like they are part of this wonderful big sound, almost an organic whole and that it is like a dance with sound, and everybody floats along together, even the conductor. The drummer mentioned that he made sure that he had a good protein meal in the morning, and that he carried fruit juice and dried fruit, so he would have energy. He said he really “gets into it” when he plays. They all agreed that once they started playing they felt a rush, and that time seemed to stop until they finished.

  1. Do you get stage fright? Please describe it.

All of the musicians admitted that they felt something like stage fright. They agreed that it was more when they were younger, but that it is always there. It goes away as soon as they start to play. The musicians in the smaller venues seemed to suffer it less, even though they were aware that any mistakes they made were more likely to be heard. They all agreed that they simply enjoyed the performance, that it was worth all the work.

  1. What about mistakes, do you make many during performancesd?

Everyone agreed that they did make mistakes, though generally minor during performances. The players in larger groups said they were covered by the others. The players in the small venues said they seldom played anything exactly the same way all the time, so how would anyone know? They all agreed that sufficient practice insured that they did not make many.

  1. Did you ever consider doing something else?

They all agreed that they did not always know they would perform. A couple thought they might teach. But it was unanimous that they hope they never have to make such a change. They do not want to give up performance. The travel was a down side, but they would not give it up over that.

Musical performance is unique in the arts in one particular. A very complex representation of what the composer heard in his or her head is transformed into what the musicians feel about that music. How they experience the music is communicated through their performance of it. In an orchestra, the main feeling is shared by the conductor with both his musicians and the audience. The only way one can experience exactly the same performance of any piece, orchestral or not, is through recordings. Musical performance is alive, dynamic and emotionally fulfilling for both performers and audience.

Apart from the critics, most people value musical performance and have mostly good to say about it afterwards. It is a shared experience which connects us all. Musical structure is undoubtedly an important component in what motivates and shapes expression, but it is only one element in a wide-ranging network of relationships. As discussed above, Shaffer has proposed that expression in performance is concerned with the characterisation of a piece in performance, and that two performers with the same structural interpretation of a piece could conceivably give distinct performances based on how they characterised the music.” (Clarke 2002, 68) This points out another difference in musical performance. The musicians experience the music and bring their feelings to the audience. The audience experiences the music also, colored by the experience of the performers.

We all have favorite music, favorite performers and even favorite composers and favorite genres. Some jazz fans would never listed to country and western and some symphony attendees would never listen to rock or rap or hip hop or any other modern music. They might even say it is not music. What they all have in common is that they experience the music. As much as we might try , and critics do, to describe music, there is no substitute for being there. Just as one cannot experience a strawberry shortcake by looking at picture, reading about it or even making it, one cannot experience music except to hear it, or to perform it. The emotions of the performers and the audience are similar and different. Performers are often audiences too, and they agree that they do experience performance differently, mostly because they are part of the production and are aware of the organic nature of the whole performance.

Writers about performances experience them differently than audiences too. They report their experiences to the public.

“Taruskin’s objection nevertheless presupposes that it is the free choice of every performer to adopt or reject an approach that takes account of what can be demonstrated of composers’ intentions. This is true only if we accept that it is also up to performers whether or not to play the right notes. In the final analysis, it could be argued that to play Bach on the instruments appropriate for Brahms and without taking account of his expectations in relation to such matters as articulation and ornamentation is not acceptable” (Walls 2002, 32)

Opinions vary widely about how “authentic” any performance must be. We are not sure that authenticity is important beyond giving the most faithful performance of any given work, as close to the composer’s original ideas as possible. However, this begs the question of why we seem to enjoy many different arrangements of many different works. For example. Pachabel’s Canon is D has been performed many different way on may different instruments, including a-capella vocal; groups. Every one of them has been enjoyed by the audience and the performers. It would likely take some research to discover what the original sounded like. So is faithful recreation of the original necessary? Perhaps this is so only for the most elitist. Does it change the music? Absolutely. Does it make it worth less? Not necessarily.

Musicians are creative, and creative people like to make their own creations, even if it is simply another interpretation of a work. It is expected that musicians who are satisfied only with perfectly faithful recreations of an original have missed the point. A case in point is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1935). The clarinet glissando which begins the short orchestrated concerto is recognized almost instantly by anyone who has heard this piece. It has a sad, almost lonely, sound that builds until it resolves into the main theme taken up by the piano. In actuality, it was the master clarinetist, Ross Gorman, who was responsible for changing the opening trill to a bluesy glissando, as Gershwin had written it differently, but changed it after he heard Gorman play it in rehearsal. The actual full score was not even written down until 1947, when Grofe wrote it down. Gershwin did not have the skill to write down a full score. His original was a collection of notes on the music. This piece has been played in dozens of different ways, and was never played the same way twice while Gershwin lived. Yet, it is every bit as beautiful in each of the different renditions. It is unfaithful to no recreate Gershwin’s original ideas? Well, considering that he changed them often as the piece matured, it would be impossible to even identify the original ideas.

Musicians all agree that learning the original intentions of the artist is important. However, it is the nature of the musician to make the music his own, to create his own interpretation. There are people who can name the conductor of many pieces just from the style and interpretation. Musicians in an orchestra follow their conductor, and they share his interpretation. Finally some studies show that it is virtually impossible to play without expression. “Musicians can replicate their expressive patterns of timing and dynamics for a given musical piece with high precision (Gabrielsson 1987a, Henderson 1936, Seashore 1938, Shaffer” (Palmer 1997)

So this means that the work has a character for them. They experience it as they interpret it, almost like a conversation with the composer. For text, especially poetry, Rosenblatt (1978) found that the text of any aesthetic work is a medium of communication between the writer and the reader, and the text changes according to what the reader brings to it, his or her own background and understanding. Further, even the same text read by the same reader only minutes apart is different each time it is read, because the reader has been changed by virtue of reading the text, and so brings something different to the second reading. Music seems to function in much the same way as text. The composer is interpreted by the performer or performing body and then heard by the audience. Each of these changes the work by virtue of what they bring to the work, just as a reader, reading aloud to an audience will function as first interpreter and the audience will change the work again by what they bring.

Clarke (2002 68) suggests that the structure of music motivates and shapes expression, but the characterization of a piece is in the performance, and that ‘two performers with the same structural interpretation of a piece could conceivably give distinct performances based on how they characterized the music.” (Clarke 2002, 68) Even musicians will agree that they play a piece differently on different occasions. They stay faithful to the music, but the interpretation is in the experience and that is different every time it is played.


This paper has only scratched the surface of a very complex subject. The psychology of musicians and music learning and performance will be an object for study as long as there is music. This is because it is constantly evolving. Just as music changes and evolves, the performers do also. It takes enormous commitment to learn to play an instrument well enough to perform in public. It takes even more to continue to learn and refine one’s skills and put up with constant travel in order to perform. However, musicians will generally agree that they =get something from it that makes it worth all the trouble.

Learning music is different from any other learning. It occupies both sides of the brain and requires m=both intellectual and physical development. Identifying talented musicians is a hit or miss thing, because the only way so far is to offer music lessons and see what happens. If it were available to everyone it would be a good investment to offer music lessons to all school children, because the process increases learning in other areas as a side effect. Plus we would discover many more talented individuals in the process.

The nature of music and performance makes practice a little different also, because it is experienced in much the same way as simply playing. While the scales and exercises are not quite so engrossing, even they can be pleasurable. Most musicians say that they may not have liked all the practice as students, but they take pleasure in it now. Practice is enjoying the final product, which is the object of the practice. Music is the product and it is created while we learn.

Another difference is the emotional experience of performance. Most musicians cannot even imagine doing anything else. They bonded with their music or instrument early, and they play because they love it. It is a huge commitment to become a musician and it must be taken on at a very young age. So there is definitely something very different about musicians. There is really no other vocation which requires so much at so young an age. In addition, this emotional experience is shared with the audience and the audience gives feedback to the performer according to how they value the performance. Unlike most other types of shows, the performance of music generally isolates the player and the audience in a sort of emotional bubble, suspending time and shutting out the rest of the world. Perhaps it is the nature of music which continues to draw people in. If you can create or perform music, then it draws you in. Music is the siren song which echoes down the ages and we all pay attention.

Some suggestion for future research would be to look at the development of music and its possible connection to the development of human intelligence, It seems that the research done for this study points to the value of early musical education as developmentally supportive of other learning, Perhaps, due to the observed development of neural networks in the brain it might be that the early development of music in primitcve cultures is responsible for the development of human intelligence.


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