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Psychology of Music

Psychology of Music

by Carl E. Seashore

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Between the physical world of vibration, as measured by apparatus, and the world of consciously heard music there is a third area of investigation. Our auditory apparatus and/or mind separates different instruments and tones, hears some vibrations but not others, adds tones to fill out the sound spectrum, etc. This middle ground is the province of the psychology of


Between the physical world of vibration, as measured by apparatus, and the world of consciously heard music there is a third area of investigation. Our auditory apparatus and/or mind separates different instruments and tones, hears some vibrations but not others, adds tones to fill out the sound spectrum, etc. This middle ground is the province of the psychology of music, a subject about which even many physical scientists know little.
This introduction, by the developer of the Seashore test of musical ability, is a thorough survey of this field, the standard book for psychologists specializing in the area, for the school, and for interested musicologists. It opens with the musical mind and with a series of chapters on music as a medium: vibrato, pitch, loudness, duration, timbre, tone, consonance, volume, and rhythm, dealing with each from the special point of view of the role of psychology. It then moves to such factors as learning, imagining, and thinking in music; the nature of musical feeling; the relative sound patterns of specific instruments and the human voice; measures of musical talent; inheritance of musical ability; primitive music; the development of musical skills; and musical aesthetics.
This wealth of material is supplemented with dozens of oscillograms and other sound-pattern charts recorded from actual play and singing by Jeritza, Caruso, Paderewski, Szigeti, Rethberg, Menuhin, Martinelli, and other artists. An appendix cites two attitudes toward the evaluation of musical talent and over 200 bibliographic references.

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Psychology of Music

By Carl E. Seashore

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12183-3



THE late Horatio Parker once said in the way of a witticism, "There are no musicians in this country," and to my intimation that there must be some near-musicians he said, after some deliberation, "Well, there is one." On inquiry as to what his particular merits were, it came out that he was a composer. "But," I asked, "how about our great singers and instrumental performers?" "Ah, they are technicians." Ranging from such a conception of the musical mind to that of the mind of Blind Tom or, in a more extreme case, the musicial prodigies which we frequently find in the institutions for the feeble-minded, it is possible to recognize countless varieties of musical minds.

Avoiding as much as possible the account of technical methods of approach, analysis, and measurement, I shall aim to set up in this introductory chapter a skeletal structure in terms of which musical minds may be described and interpreted.

The point of view here presented as a result of laboratory experience is based upon the analysis of the musical medium—the physical sound. This rests upon the assumption that a musical mind must be capable of sensing sounds, of imaging these sounds in reproductive and creative imagination, of being aroused by them emotionally, of being capable of sustained thinking in terms of these experiences, and ordinarily, though not necessarily, of giving some form of expression of them in musical performance or in creative music.

In this objective approach, we must keep in the foreground the fundamental fact that the musical mind does not consist of its dissected parts, but in an integrated personality. In its evaluation we must always have regard for the total personality as functioning in a total situation.

Musical talent is not one, but a hierarchy of talents, branching out along certain trunk lines into the rich arborization, foliage, and fruitage of the tree, which we call the "musical mind." The normal musical mind is first of all a normal mind. What makes it musical is the possession, in a serviceable degree, of those capacities which are essential for the hearing, the feeling, the understanding, and, ordinarily, for some form of expression of music, with a resulting drive or urge toward music.


The psychological attributes of sound, namely, pitch, loudness, time, and timbre, depend upon the physical characteristics of the sound wave: frequency, amplitude, duration, and form. In terms of these we can account for every conceivable sound in nature and art— vocal or instrumental, musical or nonmusical. We therefore recognize that the musical mind must be capable of apprehending these four attributes of sound.

But in this apprehending we find an inner screen which is more significant musically, being composed of the four fundamental sensory capacities in complex forms, namely, the sense of tone quality, the sense of consonance, the sense of volume, and the sense of rhythm. These four complex forms of capacity must be evaluated by themselves and not in terms of their elemental components. For example, rhythm depends upon the sense of time and the sense of intensity, as hydrogen and oxygen combine into water; yet water and rhythm are practical entities in themselves.

This classification of sensory capacities is probably complete, because it is based upon the known attributes of the sound wave. It must be borne in mind that the sound wave is the only medium through which music as such is conveyed from the performer to the listener; everything that is rendered as music or heard as music may be expressed in terms of the concepts of the sound wave. As in good reading we are not aware of letters or phonetic elements as such, but read for meaning, so in music we are, as a rule, not conscious of specific tonal elements or sound waves as such, but rather of musical design or impression as a whole. The lover of flowers may derive deep pleasure from flowers through his senses without knowledge or thought of the physics or chemistry of their structure. So it is possible to enjoy and perform music without insight or knowledge of its true nature; but the musician who knows his medium and thinks intelligently about it has a vastly greater satisfaction than the one who does not.

On the basis of our experiments in measuring these sensory capacities, we find that the basic capacities, the sense of pitch, the sense of time, the sense of loudness, and the sense of timbre are elemental, by which we mean that they are largely inborn and function from early childhood. After a comparatively early age they do not vary with intelligence, with training, or with increasing age, except as the exhibition of these capacities is limited by the child's ability to understand or apply himself to the task. This fact is of the utmost importance in that it makes diagnosis of talent possible before training is begun and points to certain very definite principles of musical education. We can measure these capacities reliably by the age of ten in the normal child; and this measure is likely to stand, except for the numerous vicissitudes of life which may cause deterioration. To take an example, the sense of pitch depends upon the structure of the ear, just as acuity of vision depends upon the structure of the eye. As no amount of training or maturing tends to increase the acuity of the eye, so no amount of training or maturing can improve the pitch acuity of the ear. However, training and maturing in both cases can greatly increase the functional scope of these capacities. The ear, like the eye, is an instrument, and mental development in music consists in the acquisition of skills and the enrichment of experience through this channel. This is analogous to the fact that touch and acuity of hearing are really on the whole as keen in seeing persons as in the blind who show apparently marvelous power of orientation through these senses.

The apparently complex forms of sensory capacities also tend to be elemental to a considerable degree; that is, the young child has the sense of tone quality, of volume, of rhythm, and the sense of consonance long before he begins to sing or know anything about music. It is the meaning, and not the capacity, of these forms of impression which we train and which matures with age in proportion to the degree of intelligence and emotional drive.

There seem to be four large trunks in the family tree of musicality, each of which may develop and ramify to a large extent independently of, or out of proportion to, the others. These four are the tonal, the dynamic, the temporal, and the qualitative. Each is the main trunk of a musical type. Those of the tonal type are peculiarly sensitive to pitch and timbre and dwell upon music in all its tonal forms—melody, harmony, and all forms of pitch variants and compounds; the dynamic have a fine acuity of hearing and sense of loudness and dwell by preference upon stress, or the dynamic aspect of music, in all forms and modifications of loudness; the temporal are peculiarly sensitive to time, tempo, and rhythm, and by preference dwell upon the rhythmic patterns and other media for the temporal aspect of music; the qualitative are peculiarly sensitive to timbre and are capable of its control, dwelling preferentially upon the harmonic constitution of the tone.

Of course, a great musician, or a balanced musician of any degree of greatness, tends to have these four trunks of capacity branching out in balanced and symmetrical form, but such cases are comparatively rare. Many distinguished musicians are dominantly of one of these types; their performance and appreciation and their musical creations all give evidence favoring dominance of one of the trunk lines, although within these trunk lines large and distinctive subbranchings may be recognized. Furthermore, great capacity in each of these types is not essential to marked distinction in musical achievement; very extreme sensitivity in one or more of them may even be a drawback to balanced musical development.

Let me give a very striking illustration on this last point. In measuring certain phases of musical talent in all of the available living members of six of the foremost musical families in the United States, Dr. Stanton found that the brother of one of the protagons of these musical families said that he had no musical talent whatever, and this seemed to be the opinion of the family. But the experimenter found that in the five basic capacities measured, this man was extraordinarily keen, indeed, conspicuously keener than his brother, the famous musician. The interesting confession came out that the reason he was not musical was that practically all the music that he heard seemed to him so bad that it jarred upon him and was intolerable. That was the reason that he was not musical in the conventional sense of the word; he was so keen that the ordinary humdrum of music, even in a musical family, continually jarred him. Is he in reality musical or is he not? The psychologist would say, "In terms of all the evidence at hand, he has extraordinary musical capacities." Yet in his family he was the one who had not "amounted to anything" in music.

Generalizing on the basis of all types of record available we may say that, so far as the sensory capacities are concerned, a balanced and distinctly gifted musical mind will in these capacities measure in the highest 10 per cent of the normal community. But great musical achievement may be attained by persons who may have as low as average sensory capacity in one of these four main lines.

But here it must be pointed out, of course, that success depends upon following the lead of natural capacity. For example, a person who has only an average sense of pitch can never become a good violinist or a great singer; but, with the other three skills well developed, he may become a pianist or a composer of great distinction. A person relatively lacking in dynamic capacities cannot become a great pianist, but might well find success with voice or wind instruments. It is not that the musician always engages in fine distinctions; it is rather that his possession of a fine sensitivity makes him live dominantly in that musical atmosphere to which he is most sensitive and responsive, even when he employs the most dissonant, rough, or unrhythmic characteristics of sound.


Granting the presence of sensory capacities in adequate degree, success or failure in music depends upon the capacity for living in a tonal world through productive and reproductive imagination. The musician lives in a world of images, realistic sometimes even to the point of a normal illusion. This does not mean that he is aware of the image as such any more than he needs to be aware of sensation in seeing an object. But he is able to "hear over" a musical program which he has heard in the past as if it were rendered in the present. He creates music by "hearing it out," not by picking it out on the piano or by mere seeing of the score or by abstract theories, but by hearing it out in his creative imagination through his "mind's ear." That is, his memory and imagination are rich and strong in power of concrete, faithful, and vivid tonal imagery; this imagery is so fully at his command that he can build the most complex musical structures and hear and feel all the effects of every detailed element before he has written down a note or sounded it out by voice or instrument. This capacity, I should say, is the outstanding mark of a musical mind at the representation level—the capacity of living in a representative tonal world. This capacity brings the tonal material into the present; it colors and greatly enriches the actual hearing of musical sounds; it largely determines the character and realism of the emotional experience; it is familiarity with these images which makes the cognitive memory for music realistic. Thus, tonal imagery is a condition for learning, for retention, for recall, for recognition, and for the anticipation of musical facts. Take out the image from the musical mind and you take out its very essence.

No one maintains at the present time that a person can be of a single imaginal type; but, in natural musicians with a rich feeling for music, the auditory type dominates, and perhaps largely because realistic imagery is always intimately associated with organic responsiveness. The motor imaginal type is ordinarily also well developed. It is not necessary for us to quarrel about the relation of kinesthetic imagery to kinesthetic sensation, but we can agree upon this: that the motor tendency to image the tone or execute it in inceptive movements is highly developed in the musical mind. The auditory and the motor images are normal stimuli for organic reaction in musical emotion.

The necessity of living in a world of representation tends to bring out vivid visual imagery as well as imagery in the other senses, because there is a general tendency to reinstate, in the representation of a sensory experience, the whole of the original setting. Thus a musician not only hears the music but often lives it out so realistically in his imagination and memory that he sees and feels a response to the persons, instruments, or total situation in the rendition represented. Without this warmth of experience, music would lose its essential esthetic nature. It is a well-known fact that many persons who ply the art or business of music report having no developed imaginal life or concrete imagination. And it has been very interesting to observe in many such cases that, although they are engaged in the practice of music, their musical life is quite devoid of the genuine musical experience. They are often mere pedagogues or musical managers.

The power of mental imagery may be developed to a marked degree with training. There is also good evidence to show that the power of vivid imagery deteriorates with nonuse. A comparison of musicians and psychologists shows that the musicians stand very high in auditory imagery and the psychologists as a class comparatively low. This marked difference is probably due partly to selection and partly to training. There seems to be no doubt but that there are very great differences in the original nature of children in this respect.

Mere strength and fidelity of imagery is, however, of little value except insofar as it is the medium for imagination. Music is an art, and he who plies it successfully has the power of creative imagination. This may be of the sensuous type which is characterized by luxuriant and realistic imagery without much reflection; it may be of the intellectual type in which creation takes the form of purpose, theories, or postulates as to the material of musical content; it may be of the sentimental type in which the flow of imagery is under the sway of the higher sentiments which are often nursed into esthetic attitudes, sometimes called "musical temperament"; it may be of the impulsive type in which the drive or urge of emotion flares up but is not long sustained; it may be of the motor type, sometimes called "architechtonic," which takes the form of a realistic experience of action or of mere performance. According as a person is dominantly of any one or of a combination of these types, his personality as a whole may in large part be designated by such a pattern. Thus, among others, we may recognize as types the sensorimotor, sentimental, impulsive, reflective, motile, and the balanced musician.

While retentive and serviceable memory is a very great asset to a musical person, it is not at all an essential condition for musical-mindedness. A person may have naturally very poor memory of all kinds and get along well in music, just as an absent-minded philosopher may get along very well in his field. Furthermore, the possibility for the development of memory is so very great that with careful training a person with very poor memory may improve this manyfold to the point of serviceability. The musical mind that can reproduce many repertoires with precision is, however, a different mind from one which has neither large scope nor fidelity in retention or reproduction. But both may be musical. The personal traits in memory and imagination color and condition the musical life and often set limits to achievement in music.


Excerpted from Psychology of Music by Carl E. Seashore. Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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