Bishop’s professor delivers ‘Just the High Notes’

Talk at Mt. A gives overview of music psychology.

Does learning an instrument affect brain structure? Does classical music affect the buying habits of wine-drinkers? Can listening to music boost pain tolerance?

According to a psychology department-sponsored talk delivered at Mount Allison last week, the answers are yes.

Students and faculty packed the mini-Wu Friday afternoon for an informal—and often humourous—lecture on the psychology of music delivered by Laura Mitchell, a professor of psychology at Bishop’s.

Mitchell presented because Mt. A’s psychology department wanted to offer students a chance to learn about a subdiscipline that is not taught here, Louise Wasylkiw told The Argosy in an interview Monday—but serendipity sealed the deal.

“Her area is something we don’t offer here at Mount Allison: psychology of music. There was [the Association of Atlantic Universities Teaching Showcase] this weekend. And given her interest in teaching, I suspected that she would be attending this conference with some of her colleagues,” said Wasylkiw, the Mt. A psychology professor who introduced Mitchell.

“[W]e had been in correspondence over the summer, and we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could combine the two events?’ So, in other words, have her offer a general lecture on the field that she’s an expert in, if she was coming for this conference. And so the timing turned out beautifully.”

Speaking in a fast-paced Scottish brogue, Mitchell guided the audience through her field in a lecture entitled “The Psychology of Music: The High Notes.”

“It’s kind of like a forty-five minute whistle-stop tour of a twelve-week course. I’ve just edited it down to what I think are the key findings from what are about forty-five years of psychology of music: the things that make me go ‘wow, that’s not what I would have thought,’” she told her audience, justifying the lecture’s subtitle.

“What we study in music psychology is a reciprocal relationship: not just the music, but between other cultural-social variables, so we need to know just as much about the listener,” explained Mitchell, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Glasgow-Caledonian University in Scotland, “I could play any piece of music for all of you here today, but you won’t feel the same thing. You won’t all be feeling the same emotion when you listen to it, and that’s because people are different. The context is different: where you first heard something, who you were with when you heard it, the period of your life that you first heard it in.”

While the talk spanned decades of research, Mitchell was still able to include findings from her own work: A study she co-authored found that subjects who could choose what they listened to could endure pain longer than they otherwise could was printed by the Journal of Music Therapy in 2006.

Mitchell, who has been interested in the subdiscipline since her undergraduate days, has seen her field come a long way: collaboration between music psychologists and other researchers is on the rise, and health care providers are implementing the field’s findings in their practices, she wrote in an email Monday.

But there is still work yet to be done.

“Music psychology is certainly a well-established discipline now internationally, and especially in Canada where University of Montreal, McGill, McMaster and Ryerson (amongst others) house important and productive research labs,” Mitchell wrote. “But it does still feel new, and especially the more social and applied sides since the first developed branches were more in the psychoacoustics, perceptual and cognitive areas. There is so far for us still to go; and as technology changes, the way we use and appreciate music also changes. Because of my interest in music for health, my main hope is that we develop comprehensive evidence for how music can be used effectively to help us manage acute and chronic illnesses, and of course to maintain health and prevent illness. But I also hope in the next decade to see even more collaboration with music educators, whether at school or university level, that can help us develop everyone’s musicality in the ways and to the level they wish to aim for.”

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