Early history (pre-1860)
The study of sound and musical phenomenon prior to the 19th century was focused primarily on the mathematical modelling of pitch and tone. The earliest recorded experiments date from the 6th century BCE, most notably in the work of Pythagoras and his establishment of the simple string length ratios that formed the consonances of the octave. This view that sound and music could be understood from a purely physical standpoint was echoed by such theorists as Anaxagoras and Boethius. An important early dissenter was Aristoxenus, who foreshadowed modern music psychology in his view that music could only be understood through human perception and its relation to human memory. Despite his views, the majority of musical education through the Middle Ages and Renaissance remained rooted in the Pythagorean tradition, particularly through the quadrivium of astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music.
Research by Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) demonstrated that, when string length was held constant, varying its tension, thickness, or composition could alter perceived pitch. From this he argued that simple ratios were not enough to account for musical phenomenon and that a perceptual approach was necessary. He also claimed that the differences between various tuning systems were not perceivable, thus the disputes were unnecessary.
Study of topics including vibration, consonance, the harmonic series, and resonance were furthered through the scientific revolution, including work by Galileo, Kepler, Mersenne, and Descartes. This included further speculation concerning the nature of the sense organs and higher-order processes, particularly by Savart, Helmholtz, and Koenig.
Rise of empirical (1860–1960)
A brass, spherical Helmholtz resonator based on his original design, circa 1890-1900.
The latter 19th century saw the development of modern music psychology alongside the emergence of a general empirical psychology, one which passed through similar stages of development. The first was structuralist psychology, led by Wilhelm Wundt, which sought to break down experience into its smallest definable parts. This expanded upon previous centuries of acoustic study, and included Helmholtz developing the resonator to isolate and understand pure and complex tones and their perception, the philosopher Carl Stumpf using church organs and his own musical experience to explore timbre and absolute pitch, and Wundt himself associating the experience of rhythm with kinesthetic tension and relaxation.
As structuralism gave way to Gestalt psychology and behaviorism at the turn of the century, music psychology moved beyond the study of isolated tones and elements to the perception of their inter-relationships and human reactions to them, though work languished behind that of visual perception. In Europe Géza Révész and Albert Wellek developed a more complex understanding of musical pitch, and in the US the focus shifted to that of music education and the training and development of musical skill. Carl Seashore led this work, producing his The Measurement of Musical Talents and The Psychology of Musical Talent. Seashore used bespoke equipment and standardized tests to measure how performance deviated from indicated markings and how musical aptitude differed between students.
Music psychology in the second half of the 20th century has expanded to cover a wide array of theoretical and applied areas. From the 1960s the field grew along with cognitive science, including such research areas as music perception (particularly of pitch, rhythm, harmony, and melody), musical development and aptitude, music performance, and affective responses to music.
This period has also seen the founding of music psychology-specific journals, societies, conferences, research groups, centers, and degrees, a trend that has brought research toward specific applications for music education, performance, and therapy. While the techniques of cognitive psychology allowed for more objective examinations of musical behavior and experience, the theoretical and technological advancements of neuroscience have greatly shaped the direction of music psychology into the 21st century.
While the majority of music psychology research has focused on music in a Western context, the field has expanded along with ethnomusicology to examine how the perception and practice of music differs between cultures. It has also emerged into the public sphere. In recent years several bestselling popular science books have helped bring the field into public discussion, notably Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music (2006) and The World in Six Songs (2008), Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia (2007), and Gary Marcus' Guitar Zero (2012). In addition, the controversial "Mozart effect" sparked lengthy debate among researchers, educators, politicians, and the public regarding the relationship between classical music listening, education, and intelligence.