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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Music and cognitive styles- -

David M GreenbergDavid M Greenberg is a music psychologist at the University of Cambridge and City University of New York, and a visiting researcher at the Autism Research Centre. His research has explored how personality and thinking styles predict musical preferences and musical ability. He also researches musical talent in autism and how music can improve mental health. In 2015, he was awarded the Early Career Research Award by the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM) for the development of a novel model of musical engagement.


His work has been reported on CNN, BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and The Atlantic, among others. He has appeared on television and radio and has worked with companies like Spotify and National Geographic to create scientifically informed formats for users. He also created the Musical Universe Project, where people can take various scientific music and psychological quizzes and receive feedback about their scores--over 100,000 people have taken part so far. 

I found this interesting article online, based on research David conducted alongside Simon Baron-Cohen and others. As well as piquing my interest as a music fan, it made me curious about the possible research and clinical implications of his findings. I spoke to him about this and his own experiences in music and psychology research.



What drew you to this type of research?


Music has been my passion since I was born. I’m convinced that music helped save my life when I was in the hospital for an illness at just 2 weeks old. Throughout my entire life since, I’ve gravitated to the healing aspects of music and its transformative nature. Research is one of the ways that I try to unlock the many mysteries about music. The other way is through my pursuits as a musician. Most musicians are scientists but don’t know it - their testing lab is on the stage in front of a live audience.


What insights do you think this research can add, that more traditional cognitive psychology approaches may not?


It’s been my long-standing belief that musicians know many of the answers to the questions that scientists are trying to explore. They are living and breathing it every day. However, when musicians enter the scientific arena, this is when interesting findings begin to emerge. One of the researchers I admire most is Dr Charles Limb.

He’s a saxophonist and pianist, but also a surgeon and scientific researcher. He’s done some great work on how improvisation is linked to autobiographical memory using brain scanning. [See here for an example].


You have gone to some lengths in your 2015 study (published in PLoS one) to be specific about the types of music you select, moving beyond traditional definitions of genre and using categories such as ‘sophisticated’ and ‘unpretentious’. It might be argued though that such categorisations are somewhat subjective, and that an individual song might fall into more than one category. How do you identify songs or pieces of music which best fit these categories?


In a further study published last year, we found that musical attributes could be organized into three basic dimensions: arousal (energy in music), valence (emotions in music), and depth (intellect and complexity in music). Thus, we could take any piece of music and give it a rating on each of these three dimensions. It’s not that a song fits into just one category, but rather we can score any song on all three of these dimensions. We can also get more fine-grained and rate each song based on 40 detailed features (e.g. specific emotions, moods, or sonic elements). These dimensions and attributes are based on people’s perceptions of music and for the most part they have high agreement about the qualities that they’re hearing in the music.


People who score high on ‘systemising’ favour intense music, and tend to dislike mellow and unpretentious musical styles





People who score high on ‘systemising’ favour intense music, and tend to dislike mellow and unpretentious musical styles






What do you think are the most important implications of your research? In particular, we would be interested to know about effects of music on empathy and potential applications to clinical settings.


The most important applications are for health and clinical settings and also for industry. We are now using big data to try and see how music facilitates changes in mood, behaviour, and personality, in the short and long-term. One of the main traits we are targeting is empathy. We are trying to map the types of music that can increase empathy for individuals and groups. We are also interested in understanding how music can facilities dialogue and bonding between groups and cultures that are in conflict. There are already orchestras, choirs, and organizations around the world that are doing this work first hand, and we’re trying to establish a scientific basis to clarify phenomenon that we perceive exists.


Further, we’re working to apply this knowledge to industry settings so that music is delivered in an optimal way to the listener. I am continually approached by cutting-edge companies wanting to learn more about the links between music and personality. This is a good thing, because ultimately it will enhance the musical experience for people around the world.


We also want to take music research and make it applicable and useful for music therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. Further, we want to apply this research to hospital settings. We already know from research that listening to music post-surgery increases recovery rates. But little is known how different types of music can speed up the process. We want to further this research so that music will be used as a supplement to pharmaceuticals to ease pain for people who are ill or who are in recovery. 



David M Greenberg







David in musician mode















Do you think listening to live music has a bearing on how it is processed? I would suggest that watching a jazz or classical musician master their instrument might increase both understanding of and empathy for the music, for example. 


Although listening to music or recording r live streaming is beautiful, and useful for many settings and objectives, there is nothing like listening and participating in live music. The way in which the emotions and energy of the music is transmitted is on an entirely different plane, than when listening with headphones. This is why music therapy is so important and effective—live music interaction can be healing and transformative and can’t be replaced.


You are a trained saxophonist. Can you tell us a little about your own musical background, and how you developed your skills?


My first instrument was saxophone, but I am now diving more into voice, African drums, and sacred music. I was very lucky to have music teachers growing up who taught me the fundamentals and importance of and improvisation and musical self-expression. My saxophone teacher Dave LeCompte had been taught by one of John Coltrane’s teachers, so he taught me from that perspective—he unlocked everything for me. And my high school jazz band teacher Robert Reimer, taught us about where to find our heart inside the music—and perhaps even more important, taught us through music about self-respect, pride, and what it means to be a team member, each person responsible for the other. These are people that I’ve been blessed with to have had around me to teach me what music is all about—because it’s about much more than just learning how to play music.


Do you play much music now? If so, how do you balance this with your professional career? What are the main benefits of continuing to play do you think?


I play music every chance I get. Now that I’m into voice, I sing anywhere I can, including while in transit on the NYC subway, which would be hard to do with a saxophone or drums. It doesn’t always work out though—just a few weeks ago there was a 5 year-old girl on the subway train who started yelling at me to “stop singing”. It was quite funny.  


Like I mentioned I was trained in jazz improvisation, but what I loved the most was the spiritual side of jazz and the music of John Coltrane and others. Recently I’ve been learning more eastern and sacred music and have been learning from teachers who have that inclination. I’m not only learning about how to play and use the music but also their belief systems about music. There’s music that’s been passed down for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they have incredibly powerful healing qualities.


Currently, I’m very interested in teaching people about music and how it can unlock creativity and healing. In my undergraduate Psychology of Music class, I would bring in the djembe and teach songs that we sang as a group. We created a type of singing community. By the end of the class each of the students was teaching the class their own melodies and songs that they created. We can rediscover ourselves through music, and my hope it create a platform for people to do that.


Can you select some of your favourite pieces, ideally from different categories of your novel system?


Here’s a visual that a writer at Stanford University created based on the Arousal, Valence, Depth model.

Arousal, Valence, Depth model

















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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.