Music Cognition as a Career Path

Music Cognition is an interdisciplinary field of research that encompasses several areas of study including music, psychology, neuroscience, music therapy, music theory, musicology, computer science and linguistics. Those who work in the field are considered to be music scientists.

by David John Baker

Each music scientist’s job description varies, but one thing they all have in common is the goal of understanding music through empirical research.

Music scientists ask questions about music and conduct research that either affirms or shatters current notions that we hold about the world of music and how it works. They may look into questions such as:

  • Why does a piece of music send shivers down my spine?
  • How can I improve the way I practice?
  • Is there a way to use music to help stroke patients learn to speak again? (Hint: there is.)
  • Does music make you smarter? Or do smart kids just happen to take music lessons?
  • What’s going on in the brain during improvisation?
  • Why does music from a different culture sound ‘out of tune’ to my ears?
  • Which came first, music or language?

Value of a Music Degree for Studying Music Cognition

Students who major in music are presented with a wealth of opportunities to learn valuable skills that are difficult to obtain later on.

Spending your undergraduate years attempting to master an instrument, performing in ensembles, training your ear, and studying music history and theory provides you with skills and knowledge that you can draw on your entire career.

Opportunities for designing experiments and crunching numbers are available at most stages of your career, but opportunities to immerse yourself in a highly concentrated music environment are quite few and far between after your undergraduate years.

Am I a Good Fit for Music Cognition?

While music scientists vary greatly in their backgrounds, experiences, and interests, there are a few qualities that they should possess:

1. Curiosity
First and foremost, any scientist, regardless of their field, should have an insatiable curiosity about the world around them. If you find yourself asking questions about music and how it fits into the bigger puzzle of life, it’s a fantastic starting point.

2. Love of Reading and Writing
Unlike music performance, the music scientist’s work culminates in writing their findings in reports, journals, and books. Except for an  occasional conference, most of the knowledge in the science world is passed through the written word. Your ability to communicate your ideas and understand the ideas of others will either make or break your career.

3. Math and Computer Savvy
While many musicians cringe at the thought of math beyond counting to four, music scientists’ work is steeped heavily in statistical analysis and using technology to support the validity of their research.  Observation and data drive the research, and a music scientist needs to be able to use tools to convert the numbers into something tangible.

4. Passion for Music
If you love what you do, whatever you do will never feel like work. It is important that you let your passion for music drive your curiosity. If you’re lukewarm about music, the work will quickly turn into drudgery.

5. Other Interests
Although a music scientist investigates how music fits into the grand scheme of things, you cannot accomplish that in a vacuum. You must be able to devote time to learning about brain science, psychology, statistics, experimental design, computer programming and wherever else the rabbit hole of research leads you to discover the answers (and generate the questions) you’ll need.

Career Options for Music Cognition

Since the field of Music Cognition is relatively new, you won’t find many job listings for “music scientists.” But don’t let that discourage you from pursuing a career in this field. The job you ultimately end up with is going to be largely determined by the set of skills you have developed throughout your education.

Bachelor’s Degree
Few schools offer undergraduate programs in Music Cognition. Music Cognition laboratories (see “Resources”) offer another way to gain experience in the field. Upon graduation, you may be able to find work as a lab/research assistant or use the skills you acquire in an entrepreneurial way. Most likely, you will be pursuing graduate education.

Master’s/PhD
Most of the top music scientists work in academia. They have completed a certain degree of postgraduate education and although they are music scientists at heart, they look like music theorists, musicologists, educators, or performers on paper. Once they secure a job at the university level, they go on to work on many of their music science-related projects.

If academia is not the place for you, there are options for the technologically- and statistically-savvied musician in music industry: music marketing research, working for a music website, or working with an advertising company.

How to Increase Your Employment Options

The best way to increase your employment options in Music Cognition is to start with the end goal in mind. If you know you want to end up in academia, keep an eye out for job postings in the current market and tailor your skills accordingly throughout your education.

If you want to work in music marketing research, contact potential employers or people you know who do what you imagine yourself doing, and figure out what skills you need to learn.
Experience working in labs, crunching numbers, and learning to program, as well as just becoming a fantastic, multi-talented musician will add to your employability.

Music Cognition is a fascinating field of study.  It is a wonderful marriage between music and science.  For some, the idea of looking at music under the microscope seems antithetical to everything that ‘music’ is. To others, discovering answers to questions that create more questions makes it all the more beautiful.


David John Baker is currently a PhD student at Louisiana State University working in the Music Cognition and Computation Lab. He completed an MSc. in Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths, University of London and holds a BM. in Instrumental Performance from Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music

Comments

  1. Mallory

    Hi I’m planning to pursue a double degree in clarinet performance and music cognition but I found out that my school does not offer music cognition as a degree. Could I have my second degree instead be psychology for undergrad, and then pursue a graduate degree in music cognition?

    • First look at the application requirements at schools you’re considering applying to for the graduate degree you’re interested in. If this doesn’t answer all of your questions, contact the admissions offices.

  2. Lauren

    I was wondering what a good path would be to take in preparation for music cognition as a graduate program. I was considering majoring in both music and neuroscience. Would it be more helpful to do both, or to focus on one, or are there other majors that I should take?

    • As this article states, Music Cognition is an interdisciplinary, academic field. And people come to it from different directions. A strong undergraduate background in music theory can be useful, but some people major in performance and either take a dual major in neuroscience or a minor in it. We encourage you to visit the Northwestern Bienen School of Music page on MajoringInMusic.com – and read about their Music Theory and Cognition major under “Majors Offered.” Feel free to ask any questions right on their school page form – and we’ll make sure they receive them.

  3. Sarah

    Hello, I have read about Music Cognition and Music Therapy but I’m still confused what are the differences between those two? And how can I become a Music Scientist?

    • As this article states, music cognition is a research discipline. Music therapy, according to the American Music Therapy Association, “is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy degree program.” Visit their website and read articles on MajoringInMusic.com about music therapy to learn more.

  4. Halie

    I am currently a freshman in college pursuing a BM in Music Education Instrumental with a double minor in Psychology and Neuroscience. I had been going back and forth between Flute Performance and Music Ed and ultimately decided to stick with Music Ed. I have always been interested in a theory that I came up with about a year ago but I never knew what category it would fit under until my mother found this article for me and it represents exactly what my theory is presenting. I am interested in knowing if I am able to do anything with this theory as I continue on with my Music Ed degree. I would like my PhD and am interested in it. I am just curious if my theory would have any hope or if I should give up on this pipe dream essentially in music cognition or look into a research grant with my psychology department.

    • Since you are just starting out, we suggest you keep all avenues open so you can continue exploring music and the many applications of music. As the author of this article points out, “Spending your undergraduate years attempting to master an instrument, performing in ensembles, training your ear, and studying music history and theory provides you with skills and knowledge that you can draw on your entire career.”

      Don’t give up on your theory, whatever it is, and find ways to explore it further. Look for opportunities during the school year and in summer to deepen your knowledge and experience of music cognition. Feed your interests and curiosity and enjoy what you’re learning as you move forward.

  5. Karen

    I am a musician and music educator and am fascinated by the recent, current, and ongoing research on music and the brain. I currently hold a BS in Music Education. What type of education path would I need to be qualified and prepared for research in neuroscience and music?

    • Great question and great field to be interested in! Check the schools mentioned in this article to start answering your question – you can see Northwestern’s program right on MajoringInMusic.com. Also click on the SMPC resource listed on the right side of this article.

  6. Hillary

    Music is my passion and always has been. I currently hold a BA in Fine Arts from Fontbonne University in St. Louis. I believe music is a healing art and am so excited by the burgeoning field of music on the brain. I am hoping to eventually earn an MA/Ph.D in music cognition. I have been an employee at various nursing homes/acute rehab facilities and have worked with residents/patients dealing with Alzheimer’s, dementia, stroke, and brain-injuries alike. My fiance has survived two head injuries and this is part of what is driving me to pursue this as a career.

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