Category Archives: Nature of Music

Of Crossovers and Role Blending: How Professional Growth Has Shaped My Personal Life…and Vice Versa

Note: This post is an excerpt from an essay published in New Directions: A Journal of Scholarship, Creativity and Leadership in Music Education. The entire essay can be read here.

Maybe it started when I was teaching middle school. I had my persona of “Mr. Woody, Music Teacher” for students weekdays 9:00am to 3:30pm. But I considered myself just regular Bob evenings and weekends. During the week, my mind raced with concerns of curriculum and classroom management. As all teachers know, those thoughts could easily spill into my time away from school. I made a point to separate my work life from my personal life. I strived to “leave my briefcase at the door” literally and figuratively.

That’s when I remember first trying to compartmentalize my life, but in all likelihood, the practice began years before I was a working professional. Like everyone else, I grew up filling different roles with the different social groups I was a part of. As a teenager, I wasn’t exactly the same person around my parents and teachers as I was with my friends! Perhaps it’s because students tend to associate school with rules, I developed much different expectations for myself when in school versus when out of it. This included how I oriented to music as a teen. While at school, I did…well, “school music.” Primarily an instrumentalist, I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band. But outside of school, I listened to pop music, and lots of it.

Perhaps I’m dramatizing things a bit much here. I don’t presume that leading a musical double life is the kind of “breaking bad” that merits a television series. In fact, the “school music versus popular music” divide is pretty common among students and teachers alike. And there are other areas of life where we need to play multiple roles, some of which are difficult to juggle. Working mothers and fathers know this all too well. Now as a parent, I must admit that I’m not exactly the same person around my students and children as I am with my friends!

While multiple roles are a fact of modern life, I’ve come to believe that too much compartmentalization can be detrimental, at least for me as a music educator. In addition to doing this with my professional and personal lives, and with my alternate musical worlds, at times in my past I’ve also considered my role as teacher and researcher as independent responsibilities. In all of these instances, I’m now convinced that too much separation can be harmful to both sides of the divide.

I believe I’ve benefited over the last few years as I’ve allowed myself to blend roles and unify my worlds in certain ways. In this paper, I will reflect on how I’ve come to this realization, and share some of my favorite points in the process. By no means am I suggesting that I’ve got it all figured out. To be sure, this is just my outlook as I write this today. Not only do I expect it to change, I think I’d be pretty disappointed if it doesn’t. I hope, though, that some who read this will relate to what I share, and it will contribute to their own process.

Questioning the Value of Role Separation

The need to separate one’s personal life from their work life is well accepted these days. Can you imagine a media advice-giver like Dr. Oz saying we’d be happier and healthier if we just brought more of our work home with us? Not likely. The underlying assumption is that work means pressure, stress, and worry. Bring that home and it’ll strain marriages and relationships with one’s children. If you can’t unwind, relax and get a good night’s sleep, then your physical and mental health suffers and you can’t find fulfillment in your personal life. I’m literally feeling tension in my body just writing about it here.

As much as I joke with my friends about having a “cushy college professor job,” I would not say that my work life in music education has ever come easy to me. Many times over the years, I’ve scrambled to meet deadlines (missed a few, too) and had to deal with some difficult people along the way. I’m no stranger to stress from the job. Clearly there is nothing to be gained by bringing that home with me. But what if I didn’t characterize my job by its stressful times? I’ve wondered, is it possible to see my job differently? To not lose sight of the big picture? In my position, my primary task—that big picture—is to share music in ways that enrich the lives of others. I consider myself very fortunate in this way. Especially when I look for them, it’s not uncommon to experience moments of reward and joy in my job. Certainly it’d be alright to bring some of that home with me. Maybe I don’t need as much professional-personal separation as other people do. I am a music educator, after all, not a crime scene investigator.

Please read the rest of the essay here.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody




School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons

Music as an Elixir for Your Brain

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

ImageAdmittedly I keep watch for such things, but recently I’ve seen quite a few internet headlines about the benefits of music to the brain. For example, I’ve read online that practicing a musical instrument boosts motor and sensory brain development, that “uplifting music” enhances brain capacity, and that children who are “not musically inclined” can gain stronger brains with early music lessons. These kinds of media reports are usually welcomed sights for musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates. We personally experience the power of music, and know how it informs the way we think about the world around us. Hearing about musical brain research is affirming to us.

There are, however, some implicit problems with claims that musical brains are better than other brains. For one, there are multiple types of musicians whose skills can differ greatly. For instance, most formally trained musicians focus on technique development and performance from notation, whereas never-had-a-lesson vernacular musicians often improvise and playing by ear. Surely the brains of these two kinds of musicians develop very differently. More generally, findings of brain research are not easily communicated because the research itself is complex and detail oriented. Each study has limitations that must be considered when interpreting its results. Each one addresses only a small aspect of brain function, and contributes just a bit more to a body of literature that’s useful in answering bigger questions.

Such limitations can be lost when media writers (and bloggers!) share research in ways that a general readership will find interesting. Consider a recent study which scanned the brains of formally trained musicians—professionals and university-level music students—who began their training before the age of 7 (Steele, Bailey, Zatorre, & Penhune, 2013). Compared to later-trained musicians and non-musicians, the early-trained musicians had greater white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum. This important finding can be difficult to apply practically to musicians and to parents of youngsters in music lessons. The first internet report I saw about this study did not really hit the mark with its opening line, “If you played the recorder in first grade, you should thank your parents and music teacher now.” Obviously the vast majority of children who played recorder in elementary school have not continued to become professionals or music majors, and thus not likely recipients of the brain benefits identified in the research.

A recent TEDTalk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett titled “Beware Neuro-Bunk” addresses inaccurate brain claims by media and advertisers. They capitalize by just mentioning the brain in an article title or using a picture of a brain on product packaging. “Do you want to sell it?” she asks, then “put a brain on it.” Inaccuracies can result from the fact that the same brain part can perform multiple functions. Borrowing one of Crockett’s examples, consider brain scans which suggest that music activates the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pleasure and love (e.g., Brown, Martinez, & Parsons, 2004). If music activates the insula, and the insula is associated with pleasure and love, then we have brain evidence that music produces happiness, right? Well, unfortunately the insula is also known to be involved in feelings of disgust and pain!

Good scientists are careful to address such points in their research reports. In their write-ups, however, they are also entitled to discuss plausible interpretations of their data. They may draw from past psychological literature to offer a theory. (Note, Brown et al., 2004, used interviews with their participants to further establish that music elicits positive feelings.) Researchers are usually judicious in discussing their findings, and clearly indicate when they’re being speculative. In a typical media report, quotes from researchers are the most restrained and carefully worded statements of the entire piece.

When people overlook important details, it can lead to some pretty fantastic claims about the benefits of music, such as the so-called “Mozart effect” of the 1990s. The original study found that college students did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to sitting in silence or hearing a relaxation tape (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). This very specific result somehow morphed into a “music makes kids smarter” movement that was embraced by many in the field of music education. In a grand display of irony, one governor aspired to raise the intelligence of his state through a rather misinformed initiative, proposing a law that a Classical music CD be issued to the parents of every newborn baby. As much as I support broadening the musical exposure of people, I’m not in favor of doing so under the guise of improving things like general intelligence, mathematical understanding, and standardized test scores. The wave of excitement for the Mozart effect eventually receded, as other researchers were unable to replicate the study. Perhaps also, people saw the folly of using music to improve math knowledge, instead of…well, simply offering better math instruction. The current brain-based music claims are not going unchallenged either. University of Toronto psychologist Glenn Schellenberger has been an outspoken critic of efforts to present music lessons as intelligence boosters. While emphasizing the value of music education, he asserts that to desire it for any transfer effects beyond music “is a complete waste of time.”

Perhaps a good starting point is applying some common sense to claims that music affects other abilities. In other words, if music does improve a certain cognitive function, is there reasonable explanation for it? For example, another recent study found that school-based instrumental music instruction improved the verbal memory skills of children (Rodin, Kreutz, & Bongard, 2012). Verbal memory has to do with how well people commit to memory words that they hear. The music instruction in the study included singing, rhythmic clapping, and pitch identification exercises—all activities that involve listening. In explaining their findings, the researchers point to similarities in the brain’s auditory processing of speech and musical sounds.

Musicians don’t enter the profession to raise their IQ or improve their visual-spatial reasoning. People get involved with music for the musical benefits. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think musicians and arts advocates are best served by promoting the artistic and expressive outcomes of music experience. A couple of the recent brain-based music articles have included this quote by McGill University musician-neuroscientist Dan Levitin: “There are benefits to having a society where more people are engaged with the arts, so even if music instruction doesn’t make you a better mathematician or a better athlete, even if it only gives you the enjoyment of music, I think that is a good end in and of itself.” I couldn’t have said it better.


Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., Parsons, L. M. (2004). Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport, 15, 2033-2037.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Roden, I., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2012). Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology 3:572. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00572.

Steele, C. J., Bailey, J. A., Zatorre, R. J., & Penhune, V. B. (2013). Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: Evidence for a sensitive period. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(3), 1282-1290.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Café psicologico on Flickr Creative Commons

Do Better-Looking Musicians Make Better Sounding Music?

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

SingingBeautyIn a week or so, two media-heavy music events will be upon us. Touted as “Music’s Biggest Night,” the Grammy Awards will be televised just one week following the musical-visual spectacle that is the Super Bowl halftime show. If you consider the musicians who’ll be at these events—Taylor Swift, LL Cool J, and Rihanna headline the Grammys, and Beyoncé stars at the big game—as well as other successful performers in the music industry, you might conclude that today’s audiences believe that the best music is offered by the best-looking people. Or perhaps they just prefer to open their ears to those who are also “easy on the eyes.” Of course, this is not just a modern phenomenon, nor is it limited to popular styles of music. The classical world has long featured performers who take the stage adorned in elegant gowns or suits, their appearance further ornamented by makeup, jewelry, and other accessories. Beauty, it seems, is a staple in most all kinds of music performance.

Research has established that what we hear in music—or perhaps more accurately, what we think we hear—is affected by what we see. Musicians (and producers) realize this and choose visual aspects of performance accordingly. As we saw over the recent holiday season, Christmas music usually comes with wintry images for the secular songs and religious ones for the sacred. New Years Eve performances are put on amid eye-catching party scenes. As for the performers themselves, facial expressions, bodily movements, and other visible attributes can heavily influence audience perception of musical quality. This includes the performer’s physical attractiveness.

It’s no secret that physical beauty can make people think and behave differently than they normally would. TV news programs seem to routinely run hidden video social experiments on how beautiful women affect the behavior of men (here’s one I came across recently). Typically, two people act as motorists stranded on the side of the road; one is an attractive woman and the other is…well…not. The cameras capture just how quickly men stop to help the damsel in distress. Of course, visual bias hasn’t always worked in women’s favor, as veteran symphony musicians can tell you. Female musicians were largely excluded from orchestras until behind-the-screen auditions were commonly instituted (Goldin & Rouse, 2000). Sexism notwithstanding, beauty bias seems to extend beyond our highways and into our concert halls, and often serves to advantage musicians who have the right look.

There is research that suggests that listeners hear music as more appealing when it comes from a more attractive musician. Over the last 15 years, an assortment of studies has shown that people tend to rate musical quality higher for performers who are judged to be physically attractive, as compared to those not judged as such (North & Hargreaves, 1997; Ryan et al., 2004; 2006; Wapnick et al., 1997, 1998, 2000, 2009). And it’s not just stage presence that’s more highly appraised. The quality of their sounded music is rated higher. This effect has even been found among highly trained musical evaluators (graduate level music study).

Simple physical beauty may have an effect, but there are other factors that influence how visually attractive a live performance will be. As I alluded to in a previous post, audiences are affected by the visuals cues of a performer’s wardrobe, bodily gestures, and stage behavior. We perceive the sights and sounds of a music performance together. These two forms of sensory input interact with each other (Kopiez & Platz, 2012), and both are filtered by our preexisting tastes and beliefs (e.g., the prestige effect). These cause us to form expectations for performance, which surely vary according to our knowledge of the performance conventions of different styles of music. What is considered attractive in terms of wardrobe and bodily gesture can differ greatly from one musical subculture to the next.

With this in mind, I would suggest that physical attractiveness bias in performance is not merely a matter of a musician’s absolute beauty (if there exists such a thing). Rather, we form expectations of what a “good musician” looks like, and we use them to judge whether particular performers look the part. The journal Psychology of Music recently published a research study smartly entitled “Posh Music Should Equal Posh Dress: An Investigation into the Concert Dress and Physical Appearance of Female Soloists” (Griffiths, 2010). As the title suggests, people’s opinions about the appropriateness of various performance attire—in this case jeans, a short nightclubbing dress, and a longer concert gown—were related to whether the performer played classical, jazz, or folk music. Judgments of appropriate dress coincided with higher ratings of musicality and technical performance ability.

The author of the “Posh” study says her research reinforces the idea that judgments of musical ability are connected to physical appearance. She makes specific application of her findings to the performance practices of female classical musicians. “Women wishing to project a body-focused image,” she writes, “should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability” (p. 175). This research underscores the fact that attractiveness is culturally defined, and certainly different musical subcultures define it differently. It brings to mind the controversies that can be stirred up when classical musicians stray from traditional concert dress. The concerts of pianist Yuja Wang often yield reviews that spend just as much attention on her dresses as on her music making. And when critics have taken issue with her fashion sense, others have taken issue with that.

Though some may disapprove of her wardrobe choices, I imagine that fewer people would dispute that Yuja Wang is an attractive young woman. As mentioned above, a musician’s physical attractiveness can contribute to favorable evaluations of her performing. But could it be that some people actually become better musicians because they are better-looking than others? There is some evidence to suggest this. The studies by Wapnick and colleagues indicated some bias toward attractiveness even when the performers were not seen. In these cases, the performances rated highest in audio-only conditions tended to be those of more attractive musicians (as judged separately). In explaining this, the researchers have theorized a deeper bias: as young musicians develop through training and other performance experiences, those who are more attractive garner more attention, opportunity, and encouragement. “It is conceivable,” they write, “that the effects of attractiveness on progress in music may begin early in life, may be long lasting, and may be profound” (Wapnick et al., 1998, p. 519).

Be it from a natural human mixing of sensory signals or the pervasiveness of beauty-driven media, there clearly exists an attractiveness bias in our modern society. It should not surprise us that it is so evident in music. Though music may primarily be an aural phenomenon, it is well established that visual elements are quite consequential in the appraisal of musical quality. In a meta-analysis of studies on audio-visual music perception, Kopiez and Platz (2012) conclude that the visual dimension is “not a marginal phenomenon…but an important factor in the communication of meaning” and it “exists for classical as well as pop and rock music” (p. 75). It seems that many of the top musicians of today understand this and stage their concerts accordingly. Perhaps with music, audiences shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but research suggests that it’s an awfully hard habit to break.


Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “blind” auditions on female musicians. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.

Griffiths, N. K. (2010). ‘Posh music should equal posh dress’: An investigation into the concert dress and physical appearance of female soloists. Psychology of Music, 38(2), 159-177.

Kopiez, R., & Platz, F. (2012). When the eye listens: A meta-analysis of how audio-visual presentation enhances the appreciation of music performance. Music Perception, 30(1), 71-83.

North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1997). The effect of physical attractiveness on responses to pop music performers and their music. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 15(1), 75–89.

Ryan, C., & Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). Attractiveness bias in the evaluation of young pianists’ performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 52(2), 141-54.

Ryan, C., Wapnick, J., Lacaille, N., & Darrow, A. (2006). The effects of various physical characteristics of high-level performers on adjudicators’ performance ratings. Psychology of Music, 34(4), 559-572.

Wapnick, J., Campbell, L., Siddell-Strebel, J., & Darrow, A. (2009). Effects of non-musical attributes and excerpt duration on ratings of high-level piano performances. Musicae Scientiae, 13(1), 35-54.

Wapnick, J., Darrow, A., Kovacs, J., & Dalrymple, L. (1997). Effects of physical attractiveness on evaluation of vocal performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(3), 470-479.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (1998). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on violin performance evaluation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46(4), 510-521.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (2000). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on children’s piano performances. Journal of Research in Music Education, 48(4), 323-336.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: PianoNOLA on Flickr Creative Commons

My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship

With the American political season culminating (finally!) in November with election day, I couldn’t help but identify some musical equivalents of the campaigning and posturing that had been going on. It occurred to me that some people speak about their preferred music with the same fervor that political devotees crusade for their preferred candidate. And much like it is with party loyalists, often touting a favored style of music can go hand in hand with condemning whatever’s perceived as the opposition. While I’m not interested in entering the political arena with my blog, I will offer a position about partisan musicianship: it does not serve anyone’s best interest for music people—be they performers, teachers, or listening connoisseurs—to disparage other musicians and styles in an effort promote their own.

Let me be specific. I don’t believe that the long-term success of classical music depends on convincing enough of the general public that popular music is comparatively inferior. Similarly, attendance at jazz concerts will not likely grow through its supporters taking to Facebook to mock the musicianship of performers like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. And toward the other side of the aisle, I’d say that no one is in a position to dismiss classical music and jazz as boring or weird before making an effort to understand the cultures, values, and purposes of these styles.

Musical exclusivists can easily condemn non-preferred styles if they judge all music by the same set of standards. Comparing apples to oranges is a well-known no-no, but unfortunately it’s still done in music circles. “Quality” is defined differently across the diverse styles that make up Western music. Classical music tends to value precise performance of a notated score; compositions are largely judged by things like harmonic and textural sophistication and extended structural development. Jazz places a premium on harmonic complexity and rhythmic variation, with improvisatory performance being an important hallmark. Popular music typically values creativity outside of harmonic complexity, instead relying on sound (timbre) combinations, rhythmic groove, and melodic memorability; live performances are expected to have a strong visual component, through facial/bodily expression, gesture and dance, and performer-audience interaction. If you apply the values of one musical style to another, you can quickly reject it as bad music. Calling a pop song bad music because it uses only three chords is like calling a classical composition bad music because you can’t sing along to the melody after one hearing. Yes, the crisp texture of an apple makes for a really bad orange.

Several months ago, in the throes of the political campaigning, I commented on Facebook that it was easy for me to dismiss people’s opinion of what is the best thing—be it a political party, social cause, or musical style—when that thing corresponds exactly to what’s familiar and deeply assimilated by them. In such cases, I wonder whether they ever adopted that thing because they were convinced of its merits, or whether they “just know” it’s the best because it’s what they’re used to. What gets my full attention, however, is when someone espouses a thing in which they do not have such an obvious vested interest. I don’t often encounter this. It’s far more common to find people making cases for what is personally dear to them, sometimes doing so in pretty unpleasant ways. When followers of a cause defend it so harshly, I suspect that they’re actually hindering the advancement of it.

Perhaps it’s human nature, when considering unfamiliar things, to compare them to what we already know and are comfortable with. In response to my comment on Facebook, my friend Chris Varga offered me an excerpt from the book The Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing, by David Berkman. In it, this highly accomplished musician encourages his readers to listen to music without deciding whether or not they like it. Berkman says:

That’s difficult to do. For many people, deciding whether or not they like a piece of music is the first thing they think of when they hear a new piece. Often younger players have strong ideas about who they like and who they don’t. I still have favorite players…but I am more appreciative of more players now than when I was younger. A lot more of them are just too good not to like, even if you don’t want to sound like them yourself.

I’d like to see more musicians striving to be pluralists, accepting and even applauding those whose music making is different than their own. And here’s where I acknowledge that my musical-political analogies eventually break down. I recognize that in politics, there are important moral issues and governmental policies being debated, and that there truly are positions in opposition to each other. But I think this is very rarely the case in music. People are capable of enjoying a huge variety of musical styles, and they can all coexist on our iPods! So though I’m skeptical about every seeing much bi-partisan action in the political arena, I hold out much greater hope for music.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: junsjazz on Flickr Creative Commons.

Taking A Deep Musical Breath: Feeling What I Know

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing musical experience. As someone who studies music and music-making for a living, it was the kind of experience that has refreshed my outlook and ramped up my excitement. The name of my site here, “Being Musical Being Human,” reflects a deep value of mine, but I don’t actually feel it as much as I’d like. Well, a few weeks ago, I felt it, and it was quite profound.

Enough suspense…I attended my first Dave Matthews Band concert. It was intensely rewarding, and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since then. If you’ve been to one of their shows, then you know how compelling they can be. And if DMB isn’t your cup of tea, I’d still urge you to continue reading here. It’s taken me a few weeks to process the event for myself, and try to discover why it was so powerful. I believe that what I experienced can be of great value to musicians of all kinds.

First a little background. My good friend Mike is a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band. A while back he told me that he was taking me to a DMB concert…July 2012 at the Alpine Valley amphitheater in East Troy, WI. The drive from Nebraska to Wisconsin wouldn’t be too bad, he assured me, and it would be totally worth it to see this great live band do an outdoor concert. I was somewhat familiar with DMB, but I wouldn’t say I really knew them. It was more like I knew of  them. I knew they were made up of good musicians and were known for live performing. So I figured it’d be good for me to go.

Before I left for the road trip with Mike, I resolved that I would not approach it like a music scholar. I would do my best to exit that part of my self. I was traveling away from home—and not for a conference this time!—and was confident that I wouldn’t run into anyone who’d greet me with a “Hey Dr. Woody.” So I decided to try to experience it like a regular person, if only for Mike’s sake…seriously, who’d want to hit a concert with me prattling on about cognitive translation of imagery-based music instruction, or some such thing?

It was a beautiful 75 degrees the night that Mike and I were joined by 30-some thousand of our closest friends on the concert grounds. I think the whole scene allowed me to take in the show like a normal person.  Well, kind of. I did a good job of behaving like the throngs of concertgoers who packed into the amphitheater. Honestly I had a blast. I cheered, clapped, danced and sang along. But as I’ve reflected on the show since then, I realize I was able to experience—really feel—some of the wonderful things about music that I often teach, research, and advocate to others. It’s difficult to pick exact adjectives to describe it, but the words personal, emotional, and soulful are in the ballpark. In a deeply meaningful way, it reinforced a number of things that define the heart of music as I understand it.

First, the musical breadth of the Dave Matthews Band is inspiring to me. Not many rock bands include a violinist, trumpeter, and saxophone player, to go along with their guitars, bass, and drums. All of the DMB musicians have impressive credentials spanning the styles of jazz, classical, and a broad range of vernacular music styles (e.g., funk, hiphop, country, bluegrass). That July evening, it meant a lot to me as a trumpeter, to hear Rashawn Ross’s extended Harmon-muted solo on the song “Loving Wings” early in the concert. When he quoted the jazz standard “St. Thomas”—one of my favorites in my younger days—I felt like he was playing to me personally! (You can hear it at the 4:24 point in this recording.) Also at the concert, a surprise special guest was guitarist Stanley Jordan. He is known for his innovative guitar techniques and the mixing and blurring of musical genres. In fact on his website, he speaks passionately about his “belief in the integrationist spirit of music.” As impressed as I am with musicians who specialize and become excellent in one style of music, I’m flat amazed at those who explore more of the entire world of music and grow from it.

At the concert I was also reminded how many things go into the powerful experience of live music. I’m talking about everything from the visual aspects of performance and the musicians’ physical interactions onstage, to the open-air venue of the concert and the almost palpable adoration of the crowd. I call these kinds of things para-musical factors (rather than extra-musical) because I believe they are necessarily part of live music making and just as affecting as the musical sounds heard. As I’ve come to find out, live performance is what the Dave Matthews Band is all about. Having been together since the early 90s, the group has released a mere seven studio albums; only a handful of their songs have entered the top 20 of any Billboard US chart. In contrast, they’ve recorded nearly 50 live albums and have remained one of the most popular and prolific touring bands over the last two decades. Unlike many other musicians whose natural environment seems to be a practice room or recording studio, the DMB guys are in their element when playing live. Their collaboration is so much more than the combining of their individual parts. Their spontaneous communication with each other onstage is also enhanced by their interaction with the audience. Those in the crowd also become music-makers, constantly dancing, clapping, and singing along. This appeals to me incredibly. It’s one thing to appreciate great performance by musical experts, but when so-called “non-musicians” freely sing and make music together…well, that really fires me up!

The final moments of the concert for me were by far the most special to me. It was so evident that the musicians in the Dave Matthews Band really enjoy making music together. These guys were not obligated to play for nearly four hours that night, but they did. And in the final encore, they carried out a joy-filled cover of  “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” (an old Sly and the Family Stone song with an intentional mondegreen title). As you can see for yourself in the video below, they had a lot of fun doing it. My favorite part was when Dave was practically overcome by the need to dance. He shed his guitar—which Stanley Jordan grabbed for himself—in order to better twist and strut around the stage! And perhaps this is my biggest take-home lesson from the DMB concert that I felt so deeply: from the audience perspective, there is nothing better than taking in a live performance of musicians who unmistakably love what they’re doing.

Image sources: Fire dancer image from DMB album Stand Up. Rashawn Ross pic from The Saratogian (photo by Ed Burke).

Music Made for Peak Perception

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Music possesses the power to evoke human emotions, some extremely intense and meaningful in the contexts of our lives. For many, live performance can do this especially well. Even in the current age of omnipresent digital recordings, live music is still in great demand. For those of us who take the stage as performers, it can be difficult to think of a concert solely from the perspective of a spectator. We are used to focusing on how best to produce expression and transmit feeling through our music. We may not think as much about how audience members receive our expressive messages, and how they experience emotion during performances. But the emotional rewards felt by concertgoers can be just as powerful—if not more so—than those felt by the people on stage.

These magical moments that are so cherished by musicians and music lovers have also been the target of psychologists’ study for some time. The notion of peak experiences, first advanced and by Abraham Maslow in the 60s and 70s, refers to mental states in which people have strong feelings of wonder, enthrallment, and ecstasy. The 80s and 90s saw the popularization of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, which describes how people can become so completely engaged in a challenging activity that time flies by and they experience the intrinsic rewards of the activity free of self-consciousness. One of the conditions of the flow state is a balance between the challenge of a task and one’s skill in carrying it out. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that music performance has been a frequent context for the study of flow, with Csikszentmihalyi himself often citing it.

Many musicians aspire to have peak performances in their activities. Ideally the presence of a public audience is not seen as a source of anxiety, but an opportunity to further enhance the strong emotional rewards of performance. As musicians seek these for themselves, I believe most would also like to provide peak experiences for their audiences. Although music listening and concert attendance aren’t typically thought of as challenging activities or tasks, they can still engender flow experiences. They are, however, clearly different from the act of performing music. Musicians can gain much with a better appreciation for all the factors that are present during a performance, specifically from the perspective of an audience.

One of my favorite chapters in the 2011 Handbook of Music and Emotion is by music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson, who reviews the research on “Strong Experiences with Music.” He tackles a few of the more fantastic examples of music-induced peak experiences, such as transcendental and religious experiences, trance states, and synesthesia (visions of colors and lights). He also identifies some of the most important contributors to peak experiences during a live music performance. These influencing factors, in the broadest terms, are the musicthe person, and the situation (see also Lamont, 2011). These three things interact to create the added dimensions that make live music so unique and powerful—the thrill of real-time vocal and instrumental production, the visuals on stage and around the venue, and the social aspects involving performers and audience members.

The sound properties of the music that make it expressive include timbre, rhythm, pitch, tempo, dynamics, and articulation. You might say that the art and craft of musicianship consist of choosing the right order, combinations, and variations of these things in order to communicate to a listening audience. There has been some interesting research that has provided insight into how certain musical devices can even elicit physiological responses from listeners. For example, John Sloboda’s (1991) study of classical music lovers was able to identify some pretty specific musical triggers among Westerners. Among them, tears were linked to melodic appoggiaturas, shivers occurred after sudden harmony changes, and a racing heart followed instances of rhythmic syncopation.

This would suggest that it is a worthwhile endeavor to develop mastery over one’s instrument in order to allow expressive musical devices to be carried out with control and precision. But just because performers can produce expressive features in their music, doesn’t mean that they always will do so. My own research has shown that even among advanced musicians, expressive intentions don’t always make it into the sound properties of performance (Woody, 2002, 2003). Some musicians trust that their own emotions will naturally infuse their music and elicit the same feelings from listeners. It doesn’t always work. As part of developing expressive performance skills, it can be fruitful to simply direct musicians’ attention to the acoustic sound properties that they’re producing—and how they’re perceived by listeners—instead of dwelling only on their inner intentions to be expressive (Juslin & Laukka, 2000). Take, for instance, a pianist who wishes to communicate sadness and longing in melody. Her strategy for making the melody expressive may be to muster up feelings of sadness and longing in herself while performing. This emotional process could divert her attention from accurately hearing whether her sounded music contains features that will be perceptible to listeners. In fact, her own felt emotion could wrongfully convince her of the expressiveness of her music. As far as the music is concerned, listeners have no other way to access the heart of the pianist but by the way she presses the keys on the instrument (and the sound it produces). This is why listening to recordings of themselves can be so helpful to musicians; it can afford them more objective appraisals of their performance quality.

The other two factors of strong experiences with live music are the person and the situation. Many things can affect an audience member’s disposition and extra-musical associations during a concert, some of which are clearly outside of the control of any performer. (Though this doesn’t mean they should be dismissed altogether, as we’ll see below.) Situational factors, however, are often chosen—or passively accepted—by performing musicians. Anything that affects how audience members receive the sounds and sights of the performance can be extremely influential. This is why much pre-concert time is spent on sound checks to ensure the best acoustics given the physical layout of a venue. But the visual aspects of a performance are also critically important. A recent NRP Music interview brought one case in point to my attention. Aside from her impressive technique, some of cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s notoriety can be attributed to how physically expressive she is in performance. She points to the moving and dancing that rock musicians commonly do onstage, saying “it always struck me as sort of surprising that people would find that strange in classical music.”

Concertgoers take many cues about emotionality from what they see in musicians’ facial expressions, bodily movements, and other physical attributes. Quite a few research studies have confirmed that what people hear—or think they hear—can be heavily influenced by what they see (among them Behne & Wöllner, 2011). Even among musically sophisticated audience members, judgments of musical quality are often biased by things like performer attractiveness, wardrobe, and stage behavior. There is also the prestige effect, which says that listeners’ perception can be skewed by whether they believe they’re hearing, say, the “naïve interpretation” of a student musician, versus a “bold rendition by innovative expert.” It also explains the famous (among classical music followers, anyway) Joshua Bell subway experiment, in which the world-class violinist went ignored while playing virtuosic repertoire in a busy Washington, DC Metro station.

No doubt some musicians lament that elaborate costuming, scenery, and stage “antics” may be used to compensate for poor command of one’s musical instrument (i.e., technique, including sounded expressiveness). Such visual elements are often referred to as extra-musical factors. I would suggest, however, that they are more para-musical, in that they are necessarily part of live performance. No music can be perceived and understood outside of some cultural and personal context. Music performance has always been about more than the pleasantness of the sounds produced. Audio-purists should take heart, though, to know that research affirms that the music does matter. But it’s also clear that performers can no more afford to ignore the para-musical factors that affect perception than they can what’s accomplished through technique.

One clear message musicians can take from this research is that audiences do not parse out various aspects of live performance. Many times an intense emotional response to music is less about the music, and more about the person taking it in. Music-induced peak experiences can often be cathartic in nature, characterized by the feeling of releasing something within. In another study, John Sloboda (1992) reported how many listeners described music as a trigger or an outlet or a way to deal with things that are “bottled up” inside. He concluded that in many instances, “music does not create or change emotion; rather it allows a person access to the experience of emotions that are somehow already ‘on the agenda’ for that person, but not fully apprehended or dealt with” (p. 35).

Perhaps the most successful performers try to know the types of people who are in attendance at their concerts. They not only practice the notes that they will produce on stage, but they consider the other factors that will affect the audience’s perception. Instead of merely accepting the conventions of their performance genre—for better or worse—they more actively select the physical and social factors that hold sway in live music. The may even have some insight into the kinds of emotions their audience members seek to have stirred up or released by the music they take in. Playing or singing for a crowd of engaged and emotionally responsive people will likely make the experience all the more rewarding for the performers themselves.


Behne, K. E., & Wöllner, C. (2011). Seeing or hearing the pianists? A synopsis of an early audiovisual perception experiment and a replication. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 324-342.

Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music. In P. N. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 547-574). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Juslin, P. N., & Laukka, P. (2000). Improving emotional communication in music through cognitive feedback. Musicae Scientiae, 4, 151-183.

Lamont, A. (2011). University students’ strong experiences of music: Pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 229-249.

Sloboda, J. A. (1991). Music structure and emotional response: Some empirical findings. Psychology of Music, 19, 110-120.

Sloboda, J. A. (1992a). Empirical studies of emotional response to music. In M. R. Jones & S. Holleran (Eds.), Cognitive bases of musical communication (pp. 33-46). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Woody, R. H. (2003). Explaining expressive performance: Component cognitive skills in an aural modeling task. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 51-63.

Woody, R. H. (2002). The relationship between musicians’ expectations and their perception of expressive features in an aural model. Research Studies in Music Education, 18, 53-61.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of images: Flickr Creative Commons: 12.