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  • Published: 26 July 2012

Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music

  • Joan Serrà 1 ,
  • Álvaro Corral 2 ,
  • Marián Boguñá 3 ,
  • Martín Haro 4 &
  • Josep Ll. Arcos 1  

Scientific Reports volume  2 , Article number:  521 ( 2012 ) Cite this article

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  • Applied physics
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  • Statistical physics, thermodynamics and nonlinear dynamics

Popular music is a key cultural expression that has captured listeners' attention for ages. Many of the structural regularities underlying musical discourse are yet to be discovered and, accordingly, their historical evolution remains formally unknown. Here we unveil a number of patterns and metrics characterizing the generic usage of primary musical facets such as pitch, timbre and loudness in contemporary western popular music. Many of these patterns and metrics have been consistently stable for a period of more than fifty years. However, we prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenization of the timbral palette and the growing loudness levels. This suggests that our perception of the new would be rooted on these changing characteristics. Hence, an old tune could perfectly sound novel and fashionable, provided that it consisted of common harmonic progressions, changed the instrumentation and increased the average loudness.


Isn't it always the same? This question could be easily posed while listening to the music of any mainstream radio station in a western country. Like language, music is a human universal involving perceptually discrete elements displaying organization 1 . Therefore, contemporary popular music may have a well-established set of underlying patterns and regularities 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , some of them potentially inherited from the classical tradition 5 , 6 , 7 . Yet, as an incomparable artistic product for conveying emotions 8 , music must incorporate variation over such patterns in order to play upon people's memories and expectations, making it attractive to listeners 3 , 4 , 5 . For the very same reasons, long-term variations of the underlying patterns may also occur across years 9 . Many of these aspects remain formally unknown or lack scientific evidence, specially the latter, which is very often neglected in music-related studies, from musicological analyses to technological applications. The study of patterns and long-term variations in popular music could shed new light on relevant issues concerning its organization, structure and dynamics 10 . More importantly, it addresses valuable questions for the basic understanding of music as one of the main expressions of contemporary culture: Can we identify some of the patterns behind music creation? Do musicians change them over the years? Can we spot differences between new and old music? Is there an ‘evolution’ of musical discourse?

Current technologies for music information processing 11 , 12 provide a unique opportunity to answer the above questions under objective, empirical and quantitative premises. Moreover, akin to recent advances in other cultural assets 13 , they allow for unprecedented large-scale analyses. One of the first publicly-available large-scale collections that has been analyzed by standard music processing technologies is the million song dataset 14 . Among others, the dataset includes the year annotations and audio descriptions of 464,411 distinct music recordings (from 1955 to 2010), which roughly corresponds to more than 1,200 days of continuous listening. Such recordings span a variety of popular genres, including rock, pop, hip hop, metal, or electronic. Explicit descriptions available in the dataset 15 cover three primary and complementary musical facets 2 : loudness, pitch and timbre. Loudness basically correlates with our perception of sound amplitude or volume (notice that we refer to the intrinsic loudness of a recording, not the loudness a listener could manipulate). Pitch roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody and tonal arrangements. Timbre accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality and can be essentially associated with instrument types, recording techniques and some expressive performance resources. These three music descriptions can be obtained at the temporal resolution of the beat, which is perhaps the most relevant temporal unit in music, specially in western popular music 2 , 4 .

Here we study the music evolution under the aforementioned premises and large-scale resources. By exploiting tools and concepts from statistical physics and complex networks 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , we unveil a number of statistical patterns and metrics characterizing the general usage of pitch, timbre and loudness in contemporary western popular music. Many of these patterns and metrics remain consistently stable for a period of more than 50 years, which points towards a great degree of conventionalism in the creation and production of this type of music. Yet, we find three important trends in the evolution of musical discourse: the restriction of pitch sequences (with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions), the homogenization of the timbral palette (with frequent timbres becoming more frequent) and growing average loudness levels (threatening a dynamic richness that has been conserved until today). This suggests that our perception of the new would be essentially rooted on identifying simpler pitch sequences, fashionable timbral mixtures and louder volumes. Hence, an old tune with slightly simpler chord progressions, new instrument sonorities that were in agreement with current tendencies and recorded with modern techniques that allowed for increased loudness levels could be easily perceived as novel, fashionable and groundbreaking.

To identify structural patterns of musical discourse we first need to build a ‘vocabulary’ of musical elements ( Fig. 1 ). To do so, we encode the dataset descriptions by a discretization of their values, yielding what we call music codewords 20 (see Supplementary Information, SI ). In the case of pitch, the descriptions of each song are additionally transposed to an equivalent main tonality, such that all of them are automatically considered within the same tonal context or key. Next, to quantify long-term variations of a vocabulary, we need to obtain samples of it at different periods of time. For that we perform a Monte Carlo sampling in a moving window fashion. In particular, for each year, we sample one million beat-consecutive codewords, considering entire tracks and using a window length of 5 years (the window is centered at the corresponding year such that, for instance, for 1994 we sample one million consecutive beats by choosing full tracks whose year annotation is between 1992 and 1996, both included). This procedure, which is repeated 10 times, guarantees a representative sample with a smooth evolution over the years.

figure 1

Method schematic summary with pitch data.

The dataset contains the beat-based music descriptions of the audio rendition of a musical piece or score (G, Em and D7 on the top of the staff denote chords). For pitch, these descriptions reflect the harmonic content of the piece 15 and encapsulate all sounding notes of a given time interval into a compact representation 11 , 12 , independently of their articulation (they consist of the 12 pitch class relative energies, where a pitch class is the set of all pitches that are a whole number of octaves apart, e.g. notes C1, C2 and C3 all collapse to pitch class C). All descriptions are encoded into music codewords, using a binary discretization in the case of pitch. Codewords are then used to perform frequency counts and as nodes of a complex network whose links reflect transitions between subsequent codewords.

We first count the frequency of usage of pitch codewords (i.e. the number of times each codeword type appears in a sample). We observe that most used pitch codewords generally correspond to well-known harmonic items 21 , while unused codewords correspond to strange/dissonant pitch combinations ( Fig. 2a ). Sorting the frequency counts in decreasing order provides a very clear pattern behind the data: a power law 17 of the form z ∝ r −α , where z corresponds to the frequency count of a codeword, r denotes its rank (i.e. r = 1 for the most used codeword and so forth) and α is the power law exponent. Specifically, we find that the distribution of codeword frequencies for a given year nicely fits to P ( z ) ∝ ( c + z ) −β for z > z min , where we take z as the random variable 22 , β = 1 + 1/α as the exponent and c as a constant ( Fig. 2b ). A power law indicates that a few codewords are very frequent while the majority are highly infrequent (intuitively, the latter provide the small musical nuances necessary to make a discourse attractive to listeners 3 , 4 , 5 ). Nonetheless, it also states that there is no characteristic frequency nor rank separating most used codewords from largely unused ones (except for the largest rank values due to the finiteness of the vocabulary). Another non-trivial consequence of power-law behavior is that when α ≤ 2, extreme events (i.e. very rare codewords) will certainly show up in a continuous discourse providing the listening time is sufficient and the pre-arranged dictionary of musical elements is big enough.

figure 2

Pitch distributions and networks.

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Importantly, we find this power-law behavior to be invariant across years, with practically the same fit parameters. In particular, the exponent β remains close to an average of 2.18 ± 0.06 (corresponding to α around 0.85), which is similar to Zipf's law in linguistic text corpora 23 and contrasts with the exponents found in previous small-scale, symbolic-based music studies 24 , 25 . The slope of the least squares linear regression of β as a function of the year is negligible within statistical significance ( p > 0.05, t-test). This makes a high stability of the distribution of pitch codeword frequencies across more than 50 years of music evident. However, it could well be that, even though the distribution is the same for all years, codeword rankings were changing (e.g. a certain codeword was used frequently in 1963 but became mostly unused by 2005). To assess this possibility we compute the Spearman's rank correlation coefficients 26 for all possible year pairs and find that they are all extremely high, with an average of 0.97 ± 0.02 and a minimum above 0.91. These high correlations indicate that codeword rankings practically do not vary with years.

Codeword frequency distributions provide a generic picture of vocabulary usage. However, they do not account for discourse syntax, as well as a simple selection of words does not necessarily constitute an intelligible sentence. One way to account for syntax is to look at local interactions or transitions between codewords, which define explicit relations that capture most of the underlying regularities of the discourse and that can be directly mapped into a network or graph 18 , 19 . Hence, analogously to language-based analyses 27 , 28 , 29 , we consider the transition networks formed by codeword successions, where each node represents a codeword and each link represents a transition (see SI ). The topology of these networks and common metrics extracted from them can provide us with valuable clues about the evolution of musical discourse.

All the transition networks we obtain are sparse, meaning that the number of links connecting codewords is of the same order of magnitude as the number of codewords. Thus, in general, only a limited number of transitions between codewords is possible. Such constraints would allow for music recognition and enjoyment, since these capacities are grounded in our ability for guessing/learning transitions 3 , 4 , 8 and a non-sparse network would increase the number of possibilities in a way that guessing/learning would become unfeasible. Thinking in terms of originality and creativity, a sparse network means that there are still many ‘composition paths’ to be discovered. However, some of these paths could run into the aforementioned guessing/learning tradeoff 9 . Overall, network sparseness provides a quantitative account of music's delicate balance between predictability and surprise.

In sparse networks, the most fundamental characteristic of a codeword is its degree k , which measures the number of links to other codewords. With pitch networks, this quantity is distributed according to a power law P ( k ) ∝ k −γ for k > k min , with the same fit parameters for all considered years. The exponent γ, which has an average of 2.20±0.06, is similar to many other real complex networks 18 and the median of the degree k is always 4. Nevertheless, we observe important trends in the other considered network metrics, namely the average shortest path length l , the clustering coefficient C and the assortativity with respect to random Γ. Specifically, l slightly increases from 2.9 to 3.2, values comparable to the ones obtained when randomizing the network links. The values of C show a considerable decrease from 0.65 to 0.45 and are much higher than those obtained for the randomized network. Thus, the small-worldness 30 of the networks decreases with years ( Fig. 2c ). This trend implies that the reachability of a pitch codeword becomes more difficult. The number of hops or steps to jump from one codeword to the other (as reflected by l ) tends to increase and, at the same time, the local connectivity of the network (as reflected by C ) tends to decrease. Additionally, Γ is always below 1, which indicates that the networks are always less assortative than random (i.e. well-connected nodes are less likely to be connected among them), a tendency that grows with time if we consider the biggest hubs of the network ( SI ). The latter suggests that there are less direct transitions between ‘referential’ or common codewords. Overall, a joint reduction of the small-worldness and the network assortativity shows a progressive restriction of pitch transitions, with less transition options and more defined paths between codewords.

As opposed to pitch, timbre provides a different picture. Even though the distribution of timbre codeword frequencies is also well-fitted by a power law ( Fig. 3a ), the parameters of this distribution vary across years. In particular, since 1965, β constantly decreases to values approaching 4 ( Fig. 3b ). Although such large values of β would imply that other fits could also be acceptable, the power law provides a simple parameterization to compare the changes over the years (and is not rejected in a likelihood ratio test in front of other alternatives). Smaller values of β indicate less timbral variety: frequent codewords become more frequent and infrequent ones become even less frequent. This evidences a growing homogenization of the global timbral palette. It also points towards a progressive tendency to follow more fashionable, mainstream sonorities. Interestingly, rank correlation coefficients are generally below 0.7, with an average of 0.57 ± 0.15 ( Fig. 3c ). These rather low rank correlations would act as an attenuator of the sensation that contemporary popular music is becoming more homogeneous, timbrically speaking. The fact that frequent timbres of a certain time period become infrequent after some years could mask global homogeneity trends to listeners.

figure 3

Timbre distributions.

(a) Examples of the density values and fits taking z as the random variable. (b) Fitted exponents β. (c) Spearman's rank correlation coefficients for all possible year pairs.

Compared to timbre codeword frequencies, metrics obtained from timbre transition networks show no substantial variation. Again, similar median degrees (all equal to 8) and degree distributions were observed for all considered years. However, we were not able to achieve a proper fit for the latter ( SI ). Values of Γ are larger than 1 and increasing since 1965. Thus, in contrast to pitch, timbre networks are more assortative than random. The values of l fluctuate around 4.8 and C is always below 0.01. Noticeably, both are close to the values obtained with randomly wired networks. This close to random topology quantitatively demonstrates that, as opposed to language, timbral contrasts (or transitions) are rarely the basis for a musical discourse 1 . This does not regard timbre as a meaningless facet. Global timbre properties, like the aforementioned power law and rankings, are clearly important for music categorization tasks 2 , 11 (one example is genre classification 31 ). Notice however that the evolving characteristics of musical discourse have important implications for artificial or human systems dealing with such tasks. For instance, the homogenization of the timbral palette and general timbral restrictions clearly challenge tasks exploiting this facet. A further example is found with the aforementioned restriction of pitch codeword connectivity, which could hinder song recognition systems (artificial song recognition systems are rooted on pitch codeword-like sequences, cf. 32 ).

Loudness distributions are generally well-fitted by a reversed log-normal function ( Fig. 4a ). Plotting them provides a visual account of the so-called loudness race (or loudness war), a terminology that is used to describe the apparent competition to release recordings with increasing loudness 33 , 34 , perhaps with the aim of catching potential customers' attention in a music broadcast (from our point of view, loudness changes are not only the result of technological developments but, in part, also the result of conscious decisions made by musicians and producers in the musical creation process, cf. 33 ). The empiric median of the loudness values x grows from −22 dB FS to −13 dB FS ( Fig. 4b ), with a least squares linear regression yielding a slope of 0.13 dB/year ( p < 0.01, t-test). In contrast, the absolute difference between the first and third quartiles of x remains constant around 9.5 dB ( Fig. 4c ), with a regression slope that is not statistically significant ( p > 0.05, t-test). This shows that, although music recordings become louder, their absolute dynamic variability has been conserved, understanding dynamic variability as the range between higher and lower loudness passages of a recording 34 . However and perhaps most importantly, one should notice that digital media cannot output signals over 0 dB FS 35 , which severely restricts the possibilities for maintaining the dynamic variability if the median continues to grow.

figure 4

Loudness distributions.

(a) Examples of the density values and fits of the loudness variable x . (b) Empiric distribution medians. (c) Dynamic variability, expressed as absolute loudness differences between the first and third quartiles of x , | Q 1 − Q 3 |.

Finally we look at loudness transition networks, which show comparable degree distributions, a median degree between 13 and 14, values of l between 8 and 10 and a Γ fluctuating around 1.08. Noticeably, l is appreciably beyond the values obtained by randomly wired networks. The values of C have an average of 0.59 ± 0.02, also much above the values obtained by the random networks. These two observations suggest that the network has a one-dimensional character, inferring that no extreme loudness transitions occur (one rarely finds loudness transitions to drive a musical discourse). The very stable metrics obtained for loudness networks imply that, despite the race towards louder music, the topology of loudness transitions is maintained.

Beyond the specific outcomes discussed above, we now focus on the evolution of musical discourse. Much of the gathered evidence points towards an important degree of conventionalism, in the sense of blockage or no-evolution, in the creation and production of contemporary western popular music. Thus, from a global perspective, popular music would have no clear trends and show no considerable changes in more than fifty years. Pitch codeword frequencies are found to be always under the same underlying pattern: a power law with the same exponent and fitting parameters. Moreover, frequency-based rankings of pitch codewords are practically identical and several of the network metrics for pitch, timbre and loudness remain immutable. Frequency distributions for timbre and loudness also fall under a universal pattern: a power law and a reversed log-normal distribution, respectively. However, these distributions' parameters do substantially change with years. In addition, some metrics for pitch networks clearly show a progression. Thus, beyond the global perspective, we observe a number of trends in the evolution of contemporary popular music. These point towards less variety in pitch transitions, towards a consistent homogenization of the timbral palette and towards louder and, in the end, potentially poorer volume dynamics.

Each of us has a perception of what is new and what is not in popular music. According to our findings, this perception should be largely rooted on the simplicity of pitch sequences, the usage of relatively novel timbral mixtures that are in agreement with the current tendencies and the exploitation of modern recording techniques that allow for louder volumes. This brings us to conjecture that an old popular music piece would be perceived as novel by essentially following these guidelines. In fact, it is informally known that a ‘safe’ way for contemporizing popular music tracks is to record a new version of an existing piece with current means, but without altering the main ‘semantics’ of the discourse.

Some of the conclusions reported here have historically remained as conjectures, based on restricted resources, or rather framed under subjective, qualitative and non-systematic premises. With the present work, we gain empirical evidence through a formal, quantitative and systematic analysis of a large-scale music collection. We encourage the development of further historical databases to be able to quantify the major transitions in the history of music and to start looking at more subtle evolving characteristics of particular genres or artists, without forgetting the whole wealth of cultures and music styles present in the world.

Detailed method descriptions are provided in the SI .

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This work was partially supported by Catalan Government grants 2009-SGR-164 (A.C.), 2009-SGR-1434 (J.S. and J.Ll.A.), 2009-SGR-838 (M.B.) and ICREA Academia Prize 2010 (M.B.), European Comission grant FP7-ICT-2011.1.5-287711 (M.H.), Spanish Government grants FIS2009-09508 (A.C.), FIS2010-21781-C02-02 (M.B.) and TIN2009-13692-C03-01 (J.Ll.A.) and Spanish National Research Council grant JAEDOC069/2010 (J.S.). The authors would like to thank the million song dataset team for making this massive source of data publicly available.

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Joan Serrà & Josep Ll. Arcos

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Departament de Física Fonamental, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

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  • Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive An archival research resource containing the essential primary sources for studying the history of the film and entertainment industries, from the era of vaudeville and silent movies through to 2000. The core US and UK trade magazines covering film, music, broadcasting and theater are included, together with film fan magazines and music press titles.
  • Google Scholar results are broad but somewhat inconsistent--use as a secondary resource
  • JSTOR full-text from core scholarly journals
  • LexisNexis Academic newspapers, magazines, transcripts, business and legal information
  • Popular culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975 : rock and roll, counterculture, peace and protest This resource contains digitizations of popular culture collections from the U.S. and U.K. between 1950 to 1975. These original archival materials are from various libraries and archives. Topics include student protests, civil rights, consumerism, and the Vietnam War.
  • ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global Dissertations that focus on popular music will give you a good idea of what upcoming scholars are writing about. This database provides full-text, downloadable pdfs.
  • << Previous: Journals and Books
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Popular Music Resources

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Quick Introduction

MSPAL has a variety of resources to help you with your popular music research project, including databases, articles, books, CDs, and some unique primary sources. 

Below, you will find a brief description of some of the tools that may be most helpful to you. 

Online Resources

  • Music Index Music Index is probably the best all-around source for finding journal and magazine articles on popular music. It covers both scholarly sources (e.g. the journal Popular Music) as well as popular glossy magazines (e.g. Rolling Stone). There are two caveats. Caveat #1 is that Music Index is not a fully full-text database. When searching Music Index, look for links to 'full-text" for the articles you want to read. If you do not see the full-text button, click the red Find It button to see if the UMD Libraries have it in another full-text repository or in paper--if we do not have the article in any form, you will be see with a link to request it through interlibrary loan. Caveat #2 is that the Music Index database only covers articles written in 1976 or more recently, which misses a lot of primary sources for the study of popular music history. If you are looking for articles written before 1976, try the print version of Music Index (going back to 1949), the RILM database (back to 1967), or a bibliography on popular music. For REALLY old stuff, like 19th century and early 20th century music, try RIPM.

Open Access

  • Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive is a series of digital collections focused on 20th and 21st century genres such as Rock, Folk, and Hip-Hop & Rap. Researchers will find all material represented in the original publications, preserved in its original context, fully searchable and in high-resolution full color. The dates of coverage are1960-2016. There isn't a ton of material here but just about everything is interesting and there is some great primary source material.
  • JSTOR JSTOR is a very large online repository of full-text scholarly journals. Its advantage for the study of popular music is that just about everything in JSTOR is high quality, all the articles you find will be immediately downloadable as PDFs, and the coverage is vast. One major downside is that due to licensing agreements, JSTOR doesn't typically have content from the most recent five years or so. For the most recent articles, try Music Index, RILM, or Google Scholar. Since JSTOR is such a large repository, one downside is you can easily get irrelevant search results (e.g., Lizzo--the Physical Chemist--will show up if you just search for "Lizzo"). You can get around this issue by adding more words to your search (Lizzo and (rap or music or flute)). Another good option is to click Browse and then drill down to a specific subject area (e.g. Arts>Music). Tip: popular music is quite interdisciplinary--you will find lots of good stuff not just in the Music category, but in many others as well. Particularly fruitful subjects to browse in JSTOR would be: History, Language & Literature, Performing Arts of course, and all the areas listed under Area Studies.
  • RILM Music RILM is similar to Music Index in that it is mainly an index and not fully full-text. It uses the same interface as well. (Follow the advice under Music Index above for locating articles that are not available as full-text within RILM. RILM differs from Music Index in its coverage--RILM skews noticeably more scholarly and it doesn't cover all the popular magazines that Music Index does. RILM is also more international in scope. Finally, the online version of RILM goes back further (it has coverage back to 1967).

There are many discographies and guides to research in the reference section of MSPAL. Here are a few that may be especially useful:

popular music research papers

Special Collections in Popular Music

You can find collections of rare or unique materials at Special Collections in the Performing Arts (SCPA) , located inside MSPAL. A few collections might be especially interesting to popular music researchers:

  • The Keesing Collection on Popular Music and Culture "The Keesing Collection on Popular Music and Culture consists of books, serials, recordings, sheet music, clippings, memorabilia, and teaching and research materials related to twentieth-century American popular music, and to rock and roll music in particular. The materials were collected by Hugo Keesing, a popular culture scholar and former professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, and by Dr. Keesing's brother, Wouter Keesing. The bulk of the collection covers the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. Serials in the collection include Rolling Stone, Pulse, Discoveries, Goldmine, and many other national and regional music serials. Research and teaching materials include Dr. Keesing's University of Maryland syllabi and class notes, writings, auction lists, catalogues, and price guides. In addition to the books housed with the archival collection, there are an additional 3,000 books that are can be found through the University of Maryland catalog. The collection is broad in its coverage of twentieth-century popular music; however, the collection originally contained a significant number of books, magazines, clippings, and memorabilia related to Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Roy Orbison, and Fats Domino, respectively. These materials have been organized into four separate collections; each collection has its own finding aid. Please note: While the majority of this collection has been processed, select series may not yet have complete inventories. Please contact the curator for more information."
  • D.C. Punk and Indie Fanzine Collection "The Washington, D.C. Punk and Indie Fanzine Collection (DCPIFC) seeks to document the variety of publications that were created by fans of and participants in the punk and indie music scenes that have thrived in the Washington, D.C.-area since the late 1970s. The DCPIFC contains fanzines - publications produced by enthusiasts, generally in small runs - created by members of the D.C. punk and indie music communities, as well as fanzines from outside of D.C. that include coverage of D.C. punk and indie music. The collection includes primarily paper fanzines, but it also includes born digital fanzines and digitized files of some paper fanzine materials."
  • Last Updated: Nov 29, 2023 1:33 PM
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25 Most Popular Music Research Paper Topics for Writing

25 Most Popular Music Research Paper Topics for Writing

Research papers aren't just for history class or the social sciences. Research papers can be assigned in any course, and that includes music class. The world's musical traditions are fertile ground for research, but because we have been conditioned from childhood to think of music as entertainment rather than a subject for academic research, it is often difficult to come up with interesting and effective topics for a music research paper. Fortunately, music research papers are often more fun to write than other types of research paper because they have such a wide range of interesting topics to explore. 

Choose from these stellar popular music research paper topics

Are you stuck looking for a music research topic? Well, you're in luck. We have twenty-five music research paper topics that will spark your creativity and get you started with your next paper. You can pick up one from this list, you can combine several of them, or maybe you will get inspired by this list and come with several topics on your own. In any case, make sure that the popular music topic for your research paper is interesting to you personally, and doesn't just sound potentially easy to write about. 

1. How is music marketed by demographic? Explore the different ways music companies target various demographic groups such as age and gender. 2. How does the categorization of music affect consumer purchasing decisions? Examine how the emphasis on genre either enhances sales or limits consumer interest. 3. Does the album have a future in the streaming era? Consider whether the album can survive in an era when singles are streamed in customized playlists. 4. How has music changed over the past half century? Explore some of the major themes and developments that have shaped popular music since the dawn of the rock-n-roll era. 5. Research the most influential musicians of a specific era. By comparing and contrasting the careers of key figures from a particular era, you can pain a picture of a moment in time. 6. What makes music "classical"? How we define "classical" music says a lot about power and privilege. Explore who decides and what criteria get used. 7. Does music have an impact on our bodies? Research medical evidence whether music can impact human health. 8. Does music have an impact on our mental health? Examine research on the use of music for mental health and therapeutic purposes. 9. Music and children: Is the Mozart effect real? How can music education impact children's academic and social development? 10. Can music education aid in memory training and memory development? Consider the current academic research and evaluate the validity of claims for music as a memory aid. 11. How does music impact dance? Music and dance are inextricably linked. Look at some of the ways that music impacts the development of dance. 12. How does a musician become successful? Examine key routes to success and what a music student can do to set themselves up for a career. 13. What other careers does a music degree prepare a student for? Research how music degrees can set the stage for careers beyond the music industry. 14. How does music impact fashion? Look at how rock-n-roll and hip hop have shaped fashion trends. 15. How is music used in advertising? Look into the reasons that artists are licensing hit singles to sell products and how that impacts consumers' views of music. 16. Classical music vs. rock-n-roll: Which has been more influential? Examine the arguments for both sides and take a position. 17. Look into the sociology of tribute bands and consider the reasons that people would dedicate their lives to imitating other musicians. 18. It is often said that "music soothes the savage beast," and farmers often use music to calm livestock. Is there truth to the notion that music has a positive impact on animals?  Explore the research and draw conclusions.

19. Music has been an important part of war throughout history, both martial music meant to rally the troops and anti-war songs. Examine the role of music in supporting and opposing war. 20. Music vs. poetry: Can song lyrics be considered a form of poetry? Why or why not? 21. How does hip-hop support African American culture and heritage? 22. Is there a problem with the close association of country music with political conservatism? 23. Select your favorite piece of music and research the influences that played a role in its creation and development. 24. Research the processes that archaeologists have used to reconstruct the sound of ancient music. 25. How do covers transform songs? Explore how covers are created now meaning.

After choosing the topic you like the most, save this list or this page to bookmarks for further references. It is good to have a library of resources at your fingertips.

Let experts rock when you are stuck

If these topics aren't enough to get you started, there is another trick to help you succeed. You can always find someone to help you with your research paper. You can contact a paper writing service online like WriteMyPaperHub and ask a professional essay writer, "Can I pay you to write my paper like an expert?" Once you do, a writer will determine what you need for your project and will begin writing a high-quality music research paper that will address your essay topic quickly, effectively, and with exceptional research and writing. You should feel free to take advantage of services like this whenever you get stuck so you can be successful with each and every music research paper.

Learning from the best and the brightest is more than beneficial. You have an opportunity to see how professional writers elaborate on a particular topic, which references they use, how they structure the whole thing. One ordered paper can be an example for your further works for months. Also, it is proven that students these days are overwhelmed with the number of assignments, and due to continuous lockdowns and limitations have less access to libraries and other necessary resources. If you feel like the pressure is too high, don't hesitate to delegate this assignment.

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Editorial: the impact of music on human development and well-being.

\nGraham F. Welch

  • 1 Department of Culture, Communication and Media, University College London, London, United Kingdom
  • 2 Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Education and Applied Psychology, University of Padua, Padua, Italy
  • 3 School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia
  • 4 Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Editorial on the Research Topic The Impact of Music on Human Development and Well-Being

Music is one of the most universal ways of expression and communication for humankind and is present in the everyday lives of people of all ages and from all cultures around the world ( Mehr et al., 2019 ). Hence, it seems more appropriate to talk about musics (plural) rather than in the singular ( Goble, 2015 ). Furthermore, research by anthropologists as well as ethnomusicologists suggests that music has been a characteristic of the human condition for millennia (cf. Blacking, 1976 ; Brown, 1999 ; Mithen, 2005 ; Dissanayake, 2012 ; Higham et al., 2012 ; Cross, 2016 ). Nevertheless, whilst the potential for musical behavior is a characteristic of all human beings, its realization is shaped by the environment and the experiences of individuals, often within groups ( North and Hargreaves, 2008 ; Welch and McPherson, 2018 ). Listening to music, singing, playing (informally, formally), creating (exploring, composing, improvising), whether individually and collectively, are common activities for the vast majority of people. Music represents an enjoyable activity in and of itself, but its influence goes beyond simple amusement.

These activities not only allow the expression of personal inner states and feelings, but also can bring about many positive effects in those who engage in them. There is an increasing body of empirical and experimental studies concerning the wider benefits of musical activity, and research in the sciences associated with music suggests that there are many dimensions of human life—including physical, social, educational, psychological (cognitive and emotional)—which can be affected positively by successful engagement in music ( Biasutti and Concina, 2013 ). Learning in and through music is something that can happen formally (such as part of structured lessons in school), as well as in other-than-formal situations, such as in the home with family and friends, often non-sequentially and not necessarily intentional, and where participation in music learning is voluntary, rather than mandated, such as in a community setting (cf. Green, 2002 ; Folkestad, 2006 ; Saether, 2016 ; Welch and McPherson, 2018 ).

Such benefits are evidenced across the lifespan, including early childhood ( Gerry et al., 2012 ; Williams et al., 2015 ; Linnavalli et al., 2018 ), adolescence ( McFerran et al., 2018 ), and older adulthood ( Lindblad and de Boise, 2020 ). Within these lifespan perspectives, research into music's contribution to health and well-being provides evidence of physical and psychological impacts ( MacDonald et al., 2013 ; Fancourt and Finn, 2019 ; van den Elzen et al., 2019 ). Benefits are also reported in terms of young people's educational outcomes ( Guhn et al., 2019 ), and successful musical activity can enhance an individual's sense of social inclusion ( Welch et al., 2014 ) and social cohesion ( Elvers et al., 2017 ).

This special issue provides a collection of 21, new research articles that deepen and develop our understanding of the ways and means that music can impact positively on human development and well-being. The collection draws on the work of 88 researchers from 17 different countries across the world, with each article offering an illustration of how music can relate to other important aspects of human functioning. In addition, the articles collectively illustrate a wide range of contemporary research approaches. These provide evidence of how different research aims concerning the wider benefits of music require sensitive and appropriate methodologies.

In terms of childhood and adolescence, for example, Putkinen et al. demonstrate how musical training is likely to foster enhanced sound encoding in 9 to 15-year-olds and thus be related to reading skills. A separate Finnish study by Saarikallio et al. provides evidence of how musical listening influences adolescents' perceived sense of agency and emotional well-being, whilst demonstrating how this impact is particularly nuanced by context and individuality. Aspects of mental health are the focus for an Australian study by Stewart et al. of young people with tendencies to depression. The article explores how, despite existing literature on the positive use of music for mood regulation, music listening can be double-edged and could actually sustain or intensify a negative mood.

A Portuguese study by Martins et al. shifts the center of attention from mental to physical benefits in their study of how learning music can support children's coordination. They provide empirical data on how a sustained, 24-week programme of Orff-based music education, which included the playing of simple tuned percussion instruments, significantly enhanced the manual dexterity and bimanual coordination in participant 8-year-olds compared to their active control (sports) and passive control peers. A related study by Loui et al. in the USA offers insights into the neurological impact of sustained musical instrument practice. Eight-year-old children who play one or more musical instruments for at least 0.5 h per week had higher scores on verbal ability and intellectual ability, and these correlated with greater measurable connections between particular regions of the brain related to both auditory-motor and bi-hemispheric connectivity.

Younger, pre-school children can also benefit from musical activities, with associations being reported between informal musical experiences in the home and specific aspects of language development. A UK-led study by Politimou et al. found that rhythm perception and production were the best predictors of young children's phonological awareness, whilst melody perception was the best predictor of grammar acquisition, a novel association not previously observed in developmental research. In another pre-school study, Barrett et al. explored the beliefs and values held by Australian early childhood and care practitioners concerning the value of music in young children's learning. Despite having limited formal qualifications and experience of personal music learning, practitioners tended overall to have positive attitudes to music, although this was biased toward music as a recreational and fun activity, with limited support for the notion of how music might be used to support wider aspects of children's learning and development.

Engaging in music to support a positive sense of personal agency is an integral feature of several articles in the collection. In addition to the Saarikallio team's research mentioned above, Moors et al. provide a novel example of how engaging in collective beatboxing can be life-enhancing for throat cancer patients in the UK who have undergone laryngectomy, both in terms of supporting their voice rehabilitation and alaryngeal phonation, as well as patients' sense of social inclusion and emotional well-being.

One potential reason for these positive findings is examined in an Australian study by Krause et al. . They apply the lens of self-determination theory to examine musical participation and well-being in a large group of 17 to 85-year-olds. Respondents to an online questionnaire signaled the importance of active music making in their lives in meeting three basic psychological needs embracing a sense of competency, relatedness and autonomy.

The use of public performance in music therapy is the subject of a US study by Vaudreuil et al. concerning the social transformation and reintegration of US military service members. Two example case studies are reported of service members who received music therapy as part of their treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other psychological health concerns. The participants wrote, learned, and refined songs over multiple music therapy sessions and created song introductions to share with audiences. Subsequent interviews provide positive evidence of the beneficial psychological effects of this programme of audience-focused musical activity.

Relatedly, McFerran et al. in Australia examined the ways in which music and trauma have been reported in selected music therapy literature from the past 10 years. The team's critical interpretive synthesis of 36 related articles led them to identify four different ways in which music has been used beneficially to support those who have experienced trauma. These approaches embrace the use of music for stabilizing (the modulation of physiological processes) and entrainment (the synchronization of music and movement), as well as for expressive and performative purposes—the fostering of emotional and social well-being.

The therapeutic potential of music is also explored in a detailed case study by Fachner et al. . Their research focuses on the nature of critical moments in a guided imagery and music session between a music therapist and a client, and evidences how these moments relate to underlying neurological function in the mechanics of music therapy.

At the other end of the age span, and also related to therapy, an Australian study by Brancatisano et al. reports on a new Music, Mind, and Movement programme for people in their eighties with mild to moderate dementia. Participants involved in the programme tended to show an improvement in aspects of cognition, particularly verbal fluency and attention. Similarly, Wilson and MacDonald report on a 10-week group music programme for young Scottish adults with learning difficulties. The research data suggest that participants enjoyed the programme and tended to sustain participation, with benefits evidenced in increased social engagement, interaction and communication.

The role of technology in facilitating access to music and supporting a sense of agency in older people is the focus for a major literature review by Creech , now based in Canada. Although this is a relatively under-researched field, the available evidence suggests that that older people, even those with complex needs, are capable of engaging with and using technology in a variety of ways that support their musical perception, learning and participation and wider quality of life.

Related to the particular needs of the young, children's general behavior can also improve through music, as exampled in an innovative, school-based, intensive 3-month orchestral programme in Italy with 8 to 10-year-olds. Fasano et al. report that the programme was particularly beneficial in reducing hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity, whilst enhancing inhibitory control. These benefits are in line with research findings concerning successful music education with specific cases of young people with ADHD whose behavior is characterized by these same disruptive symptoms (hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity).

Extra-musical benefits are also reported in a study of college students (Bachelors and Masters) and amateur musicians in a joint Swiss-UK study. Antonini Philippe et al. suggest that, whilst music making can offer some health protective effects, there is a need for greater health awareness and promotion among advanced music students. Compared to the amateur musicians, the college music students evaluated their overall quality of life and general and physical health more negatively, as did females in terms of their psychological health. Somewhat paradoxically, the college students who had taken part in judged performances reported higher psychological health ratings. This may have been because this sub-group were slightly older and more experienced musicians.

Music appears to be a common accompaniment to exercise, whether in the gym, park or street. Nikol et al. in South East Asia explore the potential physical benefits of synchronous exercise to music, especially in hot and humid conditions. Their randomized cross-over study (2019) reports that “time-to-exhaustion” under the synchronous music condition was 2/3 longer compared to the no-music condition for the same participants. In addition, perceived exertion was significantly lower, by an average of 22% during the synchronous condition.

Comparisons between music and sport are often evidenced in the body of existing Frontiers research literature related to performance and group behaviors. Our new collection contains a contribution to this literature in a study by Habe et al. . The authors investigated elite musicians and top athletes in Slovenia in terms of their perceptions of flow in performance and satisfaction with life. The questionnaire data analyses suggest that the experience of flow appears to influence satisfaction with life in these high-functioning individuals, albeit with some variations related to discipline, participant sex and whether considering team or individual performance.

A more formal link between music and movement is the focus of an exploratory case study by Cirelli and Trehub . They investigated a 19-month-old infant's dance-like, motorically-complex responses to familiar and unfamiliar songs, presented at different speeds. Movements were faster for the more familiar items at their original tempo. The child had been observed previously as moving to music at the age of 6 months.

Finally, a novel UK-based study by Waddington-Jones et al. evaluated the impact of two professional composers who were tasked, individually, to lead a 4-month programme of group composing in two separate and diverse community settings—one with a choral group and the other in a residential home, both funded as part of a music programme for the Hull City of Culture in 2017. In addition to the two composers, the participants were older adults, with the residential group being joined by schoolchildren from a local Primary school to collaborate in a final performance. Qualitative data analyses provide evidence of multi-dimensional psychological benefits arising from the successful, group-focused music-making activities.

In summary, these studies demonstrate that engaging in musical activity can have a positive impact on health and well-being in a variety of ways and in a diverse range of contexts across the lifespan. Musical activities, whether focused on listening, being creative or re-creative, individual or collective, are infused with the potential to be therapeutic, developmental, enriching, and educational, with the caveat provided that such musical experiences are perceived to be engaging, meaningful and successful by those who participate.

Collectively, these studies also celebrate the multiplicity of ways in which music can be experienced. Reading across the articles might raise a question as to whether or not any particular type of musical experience is seen to be more beneficial compared with another. The answer, at least in part, is that the empirical evidence suggests that musical engagement comes in myriad forms along a continuum of more or less overt activity, embracing learning, performing, composing and improvising, as well as listening and appreciating. Furthermore, given the multidimensional neurological processing of musical experience, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that it is perhaps the level of emotional engagement in the activity that drives its degree of health and well-being efficacy as much as the activity's overt musical features. And therein are opportunities for further research!

Author Contributions

The editorial was drafted by GW and approved by the topic Co-editors. All authors listed have made a substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the Edited Collection, and have approved this editorial for publication.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We are very grateful to all the contributing authors and their participants for their positive engagement with this Frontiers Research Topic, and also for the Frontiers staff for their commitment and support in bringing this topic to press.

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Keywords: music, wider benefits, lifespan, health, well-being

Citation: Welch GF, Biasutti M, MacRitchie J, McPherson GE and Himonides E (2020) Editorial: The Impact of Music on Human Development and Well-Being. Front. Psychol. 11:1246. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01246

Received: 12 January 2020; Accepted: 13 May 2020; Published: 17 June 2020.

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Copyright © 2020 Welch, Biasutti, MacRitchie, McPherson and Himonides. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Graham F. Welch, ; Michele Biasutti,

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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The psychological functions of music listening

Thomas schäfer.

1 Department of Psychology, Chemnitz University of Technology, Chemnitz, Germany

Peter Sedlmeier

Christine städtler, david huron.

2 School of Music, Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

Why do people listen to music? Over the past several decades, scholars have proposed numerous functions that listening to music might fulfill. However, different theoretical approaches, different methods, and different samples have left a heterogeneous picture regarding the number and nature of musical functions. Moreover, there remains no agreement about the underlying dimensions of these functions. Part one of the paper reviews the research contributions that have explicitly referred to musical functions. It is concluded that a comprehensive investigation addressing the basic dimensions underlying the plethora of functions of music listening is warranted. Part two of the paper presents an empirical investigation of hundreds of functions that could be extracted from the reviewed contributions. These functions were distilled to 129 non-redundant functions that were then rated by 834 respondents. Principal component analysis suggested three distinct underlying dimensions: People listen to music to regulate arousal and mood , to achieve self-awareness , and as an expression of social relatedness . The first and second dimensions were judged to be much more important than the third—a result that contrasts with the idea that music has evolved primarily as a means for social cohesion and communication. The implications of these results are discussed in light of theories on the origin and the functionality of music listening and also for the application of musical stimuli in all areas of psychology and for research in music cognition.


Music listening is one of the most enigmatic of human behaviors. Most common behaviors have a recognizable utility that can be plausibly traced to the practical motives of survival and procreation. Moreover, in the array of seemingly odd behaviors, few behaviors match music for commandeering so much time, energy, and money. Music listening is one of the most popular leisure activities. Music is a ubiquitous companion to people's everyday lives.

The enthusiasm for music is not a recent development. Recognizably musical activities appear to have been present in every known culture on earth, with ancient roots extending back 250,000 years or more (see Zatorre and Peretz, 2001 ). The ubiquity and antiquity of music has inspired considerable speculation regarding its origin and function.

Throughout history, scholars of various stripes have pondered the nature of music. Philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, musicologists, and neuroscientists have proposed a number of theories concerning the origin and purpose of music and some have pursued scientific approaches to investigating them (e.g., Fitch, 2006 ; Peretz, 2006 ; Levitin, 2007 ; Schäfer and Sedlmeier, 2010 ).

The origin of music is shrouded in prehistory. There is little physical evidence—like stone carvings or fossilized footprints—that might provide clues to music's past. Necessarily, hypotheses concerning the original functions of music will remain speculative. Nevertheless, there are a number of plausible and interesting conjectures that offer useful starting-points for investigating the functions of music.

A promising approach to the question of music's origins focuses on how music is used—that is, it's various functions. In fact, many scholars have endeavored to enumerate various musical functions (see below). The assumption is that the function(s) that music is presumed to have served in the past would be echoed in at least one of the functions that music serves today. Of course, how music is used today need have no relationship with music's function(s) in the remote past. Nevertheless, evidence from modern listeners might provide useful clues pertinent to theorizing about origins.

In proposing various musical functions, not all scholars have related these functions to music's presumed evolutionary roots. For many scholars, the motivation has been simply to identify the multiple ways in which music is used in everyday lives (e.g., Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham, 2007 ; Boer, 2009 ; Lonsdale and North, 2011 ; Packer and Ballantyne, 2011 ). Empirical studies of musical functions have been very heterogeneous. Some studies were motivated by questions related to development. Many related to social identity. Others were motivated by cognitive psychology, aesthetics, cultural psychology, or personality psychology. In addition, studies differed according to the target population. While some studies attempted to assemble representative samples of listeners, others explicitly focused on specific populations such as adolescents. Most studies rely on convenient samples of students. Consequently, the existing literature is something of a hodgepodge.

The aim of the present study is to use the extant literature as a point of departure for a fresh re-appraisal of possible musical functions. In Part 1 of our study, we summarize the results of an extensive literature survey concerning the possible functions of music. Specifically, we identified and skimmed hundreds of publications that explicitly suggest various functions, uses, or benefits for music. We provide separate overviews for the empirical literatures and the theoretical literatures. This survey resulted in just over 500 proposed musical functions. We do not refer to each of the identified publications but concentrate on the ones that have identified either more than one single function of music listening or a single unique function that is not captured in any other publication. In Part 2, we present the results of an empirical study whose purpose was to distill—using principal components analysis (PCA)—the many proposed functions of music listening. To anticipate our results, we will see that PCA suggests three main dimensions that can account for much of the shared variance in the proposed musical functions.

Review of the research on the functions of music

Discussions and speculations regarding the functions of music listening can be found in both theoretical literature concerning music as well as in empirical studies of music. Below, we offer a review of both literatures. The contents of the reviews are summarized in Tables ​ TablesA1, A1 , ​ ,A2. A2 . Table ​ TableA1 A1 provides an overview of theoretical proposals regarding musical function, whereas Table ​ TableA2 A2 provides an overview of empirical studies regarding musical function. Together, the two tables provide a broad inventory of potential functions for music.

Theoretical approaches

Many scholars have discussed potential functions of music exclusively from a theoretical point of view. The most prominent of these approaches or theories are the ones that make explicit evolutionary claims. However, there are also other, non-evolutionary approaches such as experimental aesthetics or the uses-and-gratifications approach. Functions of music were derived deductively from these approaches and theories. In addition, in the literature, one commonly finds lists or collections of functions that music can have. Most of these lists are the result of literature searches; in other cases authors provide no clear explanation for how they came up with the functions they list. Given the aim of assembling a comprehensive list, all works are included in our summary.

Functions of music as they derive from specific approaches or theories

Evolutionary approaches. Evolutionary discussions of music can already be found in the writings of Darwin. Darwin discussed some possibilities but felt there was no satisfactory solution to music's origins (Darwin, 1871 , 1872 ). His intellectual heirs have been less cautious. Miller ( 2000 ), for instance, has argued that music making is a reasonable index of biological fitness, and so a manifestation of sexual selection—analogous to the peacock's tail. Anyone who can afford the biological luxury of making music must be strong and healthy. Thus, music would offer an honest social signal of physiological fitness.

Another line of theorizing refers to music as a means of social and emotional communication. For example, Panksepp and Bernatzky ( 2002 , p. 139) argued that

in social creatures like ourselves, whose ancestors lived in arboreal environments where sound was one of the most effective ways to coordinate cohesive group activities, reinforce social bonds, resolve animosities, and to establish stable hierarchies of submission and dominance, there could have been a premium on being able to communicate shades of emotional meaning by the melodic character (prosody) of emitted sounds.

A similar idea is that music contributes to social cohesion and thereby increases the effectiveness of group action. Work and war songs, lullabies, and national anthems have bound together families, groups, or whole nations. Relatedly, music may provide a means to reduce social stress and temper aggression in others. The idea that music may function as a social cement has many proponents (see Huron, 2001 ; Mithen, 2006 ; Bicknell, 2007 ).

A novel evolutionary theory is offered by Falk ( 2004a , b ) who has proposed that music arose from humming or singing intended to maintain infant-mother attachment. Falk's “putting-down-the-baby hypothesis” suggests that mothers would have profited from putting down their infants in order to make their hands free for other activities. Humming or singing consequently arose as a consoling signal indicating caretaker proximity in the absence of physical touch.

Another interesting conjecture relates music to human anxiety related to death, and the consequent quest for meaning. Dissanayake ( 2009 ), for example, has argued that humans have used music to help cope with awareness of life's transitoriness. In a manner similar to religious beliefs about the hereafter or a higher transcendental purpose, music can help assuage human anxiety concerning mortality (see, e.g., Newberg et al., 2001 ). Neurophysiological studies regarding music-induced chills can be interpreted as congruent with this conjecture. For example, music-induced chills produce reduced activity in brain structures associated with anxiety (Blood and Zatorre, 2001 ).

Related ideas stress the role music plays in feelings of transcendence. For example, (Frith, 1996 , p. 275) has noted that: “We all hear the music we like as something special, as something that defies the mundane, takes us “out of ourselves,” puts us somewhere else.” Thus, music may provide a means of escape. The experience of flow states (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009 ), peaks (Maslow, 1968 ), and chills (Panksepp, 1995 ), which are often evoked by music listening, might similarly be interpreted as forms of transcendence or escapism (see also Fachner, 2008 ).

More generally, Schubert ( 2009 ) has argued that the fundamental function of music is its potential to produce pleasure in the listener (and in the performer, as well). All other functions may be considered subordinate to music's pleasure-producing capacity. Relatedly, music might have emerged as a safe form of time-passing—analogous to the sleeping behaviors found among many predators. As humans became more effective hunters, music might have emerged merely as an entertaining and innocuous way to pass time during waking hours (see Huron, 2001 ).

The above theories each stress a single account of music's origins. In addition, there are mixed theories that posit a constellation of several concurrent functions. Anthropological accounts of music often refer to multiple social and cultural benefits arising from music. Merriam ( 1964 ) provides a seminal example. In his book, The anthropology of music , Merriam proposed 10 social functions music can serve (e.g., emotional expression, communication, and symbolic representation). Merriam's work has had a lasting influence among music scholars, but also led many scholars to focus exclusively on the social functions of music. Following in the tradition of Merriam, Dissanayake ( 2006 ) proposed six social functions of ritual music (such as display of resources, control, and channeling of individual aggression, and the facilitation of courtship).

Non-evolutionary approaches. Many scholars have steered clear of evolutionary speculation about music, and have instead focused on the ways in which people use music in their everyday lives today. A prominent approach is the “uses-and-gratifications” approach (e.g., Arnett, 1995 ). This approach focuses on the needs and concerns of the listeners and tries to explain how people actively select and use media such as music to serve these needs and concerns. Arnett ( 1995 ) provides a list of potential uses of music such as entertainment, identity formation, sensation seeking, or culture identification.

Another line of research is “experimental aesthetics” whose proponents investigate the subjective experience of beauty (both artificial or natural), and the ensuing experience of pleasure. For example, in discussing the “recent work in experimental aesthetics,” Bullough ( 1921 ) distinguished several types of listeners and pointed to the fact that music can be used to activate associations, memories, experiences, moods, and emotions.

By way of summary, many musical functions have been proposed in the research literature. Evolutionary speculations have tended to focus on single-source causes such as music as an indicator of biological fitness, music as a means for social and emotional communication, music as social glue, music as a way of facilitating caretaker mobility, music as a means of tempering anxiety about mortality, music as escapism or transcendental meaning, music as a source of pleasure, and music as a means for passing time. Other accounts have posited multiple concurrent functions such as the plethora of social and cultural functions of music found in anthropological writings about music. Non-evolutionary approaches are evident in the uses-and-gratifications approach—which revealed a large number of functions that can be summarized as cognitive, emotional, social, and physiological functions—and the experimental aesthetics approach, whose proposed functions can similarly be summarized as cognitive and emotional functions.

Functions of music as they derive from literature research

As noted, many publications posit musical functions without providing a clear connection to any theory. Most of these works are just collections of functions of music from the literature. Not least, there are also accounts of such collections where it remained unclear how the author(s) came up with the functions contained. Some of these works refer to only one single function of music—most often because this functional aspect was investigated not with the focus on music but with a focus on other psychological phenomena. Yet other works list extensive collections of purported musical functions.

Works that refer to only one single functional aspect of music include possible therapeutic functions for music in clinical settings (Cook, 1986 ; Frohne-Hagemann and Pleß-Adamczyk, 2005 ), the use of music for symbolic exclusion in political terms (Bryson, 1996 ), the syntactic, semantic, and mediatizing use of film music (Maas, 1993 ), and the use of music to manage physiological arousal (Bartlett, 1996 ).

The vast majority of publications identify several possible musical functions, most of which—as stated above—are clearly focused on social aspects. Several comprehensive collections have been assembled, such as those by Baacke ( 1984 ), Gregory ( 1997 ), Ruud ( 1997 ), Roberts and Christenson ( 2001 ), Engh ( 2006 ), and Laiho ( 2004 ). Most of these studies identified a very large number of potential functions of music.

By way of summary, there exists a long tradition of theorizing about the potential functions of music. Although some of these theories have been deduced from a prior theoretical framework, none was the result of empirical testing or exploratory data-gathering. In the ensuing section, we turn to consider empirically-oriented research regarding the number and nature of potential musical functions.

Empirical investigations

A number of studies have approached the functions of music from an empirical perspective. Two main approaches might be distinguished. In the first approach, the research aim is to uncover or document actual musical functioning. That is, the research aims to observe or identify one or more ways in which music is used in daily life. In the second approach, the research goal is to infer the structure or pattern underlying the use of music. That is, the research aims to uncover potential basic or fundamental dimensions implied by the multiple functions of music. This is mostly done using PCA or factor analyses or cluster analyses that reduce a large number of functions to only a few basic dimensions. In some cases, the analyses are run exploratively whereas in other cases, they are run in a confirmatory way, that is—with a predefined number of dimensions. The empirical studies can be categorized according to several criteria (see Table ​ TableA2). A2 ). However, when discussing some of the most important works here, we will separate studies where respondents were asked for the functions of music in open surveys from studies where the authors provided their own collections of functions, based on either literature research or face validity.

Surveys about the functions music can have

A number of studies have attempted to chronicle the broad range of musical functions. Most of these studies employed surveys in which people were asked to identify the ways in which they make use of music in their lives. In some studies, expert interviews were conducted in order to identify possible functions. Table ​ TableA2 A2 provides a summary of all the pertinent studies including their collections of functions and—where applicable—their derived underlying dimensions. We will restrict our ensuing remarks to the largest and most comprehensive studies.

Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham ( 2007 ) identified 15 functions of music among students and subsequently ran focus groups from which they distilled three distinct dimensions: emotional use, rational use, and background use. Some of the largest surveys have been carried out by Boer ( 2009 ). She interviewed more than a thousand young people in different countries and assembled a comprehensive collection of musical functions. Using factor analysis, she found 10 underlying dimensions: emotion, friends, family, venting, background, dancing, focus, values, politic, and culture. (Lonsdale and North, 2011 , Study 1) pursued a uses-and-gratifications approach. They identified 30 musical uses that could be reduced to six distinct dimensions. In a related study employing a larger sample, the same authors came up with eight distinct dimensions: identity, positive and negative mood management, reminiscing, diversion, arousal, surveillance, and social interaction (Lonsdale and North, 2011 , Study 4). When interviewing older participants, Hays and Minichiello ( 2005 ) qualitatively identified six dimensions: linking, life events, sharing and connecting, wellbeing, therapeutic benefits, escapism, and spirituality.

The various surveys and interview studies clearly diverge with regard to the number of different musical functions. Similarly, the various cluster and factor analyses often end up producing different numbers of distinct dimensions. Nevertheless, the results are often quite similar. On a very broad level, there are four categories that appear consistently: social functions, emotional functions, cognitive or self-related functions, and physiological or arousal-related functions (see also Hargreaves and North, 1999 ; Schäfer and Sedlmeier, 2009 , 2010 ).

Empirical studies using predefined collections of functions of music

Apart from the open-ended surveys and interview methods, a number of studies investigating musical functions begin with researcher-defined collections or even categories/dimensions. Some of these predefined collections or categories/dimensions were simply borrowed from the existing published research, whereas others were derived from specific theoretical perspectives.

Empirical studies on functions of music emerging from specific theoretical approaches. Some of the above mentioned theoretical approaches to the functionality of music have been investigated in empirical studies. Boehnke and Münch ( 2003 ) developed a model of the relationship of adolescents' development, music, and media use. They proposed seven functions of music that relate to the developmental issues of young people (such as peer group integration, physical maturation, or identity development). In two studies with a large number of participants, Lonsdale and North ( 2011 ) applied the model of media gratification (from McQuail et al., 1972 ) and used a collection of 30 functions of music they assembled from literature research and interviews. In both studies, they ran factor analyses—reducing the number of functions to six dimensions and eight dimensions, respectively. Lehmann ( 1994 ) developed a situations-functions-preference model and proposed that music preferences emerge from the successful use of music to serve specific functions for the listener, depending on the current situation. Lehmann identified 68 ways in which people use music, from which he was able to reduce them to 15 music reception strategies (Rezeptionsweisen) such as compensation/escapism, relaxation, and identification. Misenhelter and Kaiser ( 2008 ) adopted Merriam's ( 1964 ) anthropological approach and attempted to identify the functions of music in the context of music education. They surveyed teachers and students and found six basic functions that were quite similar to the ones proposed by Merriam ( 1964 ). Wells and Hakanen ( 1997 ) adopted Zillmann's ( 1988a , b ) mood management theory and identified four types of users regarding the emotional functions of music: mainstream, music lover, indifferent, and heavy rockers.

Empirical studies on functions of music emerging from literature research. A number of studies have made use of predefined musical functions borrowed from the existing research literature. The significance of these functions and/or their potential underlying structure has then been empirically investigated using different samples. As mentioned, not all of those studies tried to assemble an exhaustive collection of musical functions in order to produce a comprehensive picture of the functions of music; but many studies were focused on specific aspects such as the emotional, cognitive, or social functions of music.

Schäfer and Sedlmeier ( 2009 ) collected 17 functions of music from the literature and found functions related to the management of mood and arousal as well as self-related functions to be the ones that people highly ascribe to their favorite music. Tarrant et al. ( 2000 ) used a collection of 10 functions of music from the literature and factor analyzed them resulting in three distinct dimensions of music use: self-related, emotional, and social.

Sun and Lull ( 1986 ) collected 18 functions of music videos and were able to reduce them to four dimensions: social learning, passing time, escapism/mood, and social interaction. Melton and Galician ( 1987 ) identified 15 functions of radio music and music videos; and Greasley and Lamont ( 2011 ) collected 15 functions of music, as well. Ter Bogt et al. ( 2011 ) collected 19 functions of music from the literature and used confirmatory factor analysis to group them into five dimensions. In a clinical study with adolescents, Walker Kennedy ( 2010 ) found 47 functions of music that could be reduced to five dimensions.

By way of summary, extant empirical studies have used either an open approach—trying to capture the variety of musical functions in the course of surveys or questionnaire studies—or predefined collections of functions as they resulted from specific theoretical approaches or from literature research. These different approaches have led to quite heterogeneous collections of possible musical functions—from only few functions posited by a specific hypothesis, to long lists arising from open surveys. Moreover, although the many attempts to distill the functions of music to fewer dimensions have produced some points of agreement, the overall picture remains unclear.

The structure among the functions of music

With each successive study of musical functions, the aggregate list of potential uses has grown longer. Questionnaire studies, in particular, have led to the proliferation of possible ways in which music may be relevant in people's lives. Even if one sidesteps the question of possible evolutionary origins, the multitude of hundreds of proposed functions raises the question of whether these might not be distilled to a smaller set of basic dimensions.

As noted earlier, previous research appears to converge on four dimensions: social functions (such as the expression of one's identity or personality), emotional functions (such as the induction of positive feelings), cogni tive or self-related functions (such as escapism), and arousal-related functions (such as calming down or passing time). These four dimensions might well account for the basic ways in which people use music in their daily lives.

Notice that cluster analysis and PCA/factor analysis presume that the research begins with a range of variables that ultimately capture all of the factors or dimensions pertaining to the phenomenon under consideration. The omission of even a single variable can theoretically lead to incomplete results if that variable proves to share little variance in common with the other variables. For example, in studying the factors that contribute to a person's height, the failure to include a variable related to developmental nutrition will led to deceptive results; one might wrongly conclude that only genetic factors are important. The validity of these analyses depends, in part, on including a sufficient range of variables so that all of the pertinent factors or dimensions are likely to emerge.

Accordingly, we propose to address the question of musical functions anew, starting with the most comprehensive list yet of potential music-related functions. In addition, we will aim to recruit a sample of participants covering all age groups, a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, and pursue our analysis without biasing the materials to any specific theory.

Fundamental functions of music—a comprehensive empirical study

The large number of functions of music that research has identified during the last decades has raised the question of a potential underlying structure: Are there functions that are more fundamental and are there others that can be subsumed under the fundamental ones? And if so, how many fundamental functions are there? As we have outlined above, many scientists have been in search of basic distinct dimensions among the functions of music. They have used statistical methods that help uncover such dimensions among a large number of variables: factor analyses or cluster analyses.

However, as we have also seen, the approaches and methods have been as different as the various functions suggested. For instance, some scholars have focused exclusively on the social functions of music while others have been interested in only the emotional ones; some used only adolescent participants while others consulted only older people. Thus, these researchers arrived at different categorizations according to their particular approach. To date, there is still no conclusive categorization of the functions of music into distinct dimensions, which makes psychological studies that rely on the use of music and its effects on cognition, emotion, and behavior still difficult (see also Stefanija, 2007 ). Although there exist some theoretically driven claims about what fundamental dimensions there might be (Tarrant et al., 2000 ; Laiho, 2004 ; Schubert, 2009 ; Lonsdale and North, 2011 ), there has been no large-scale empirical study that analyzed the number and nature of distinct dimensions using the broad range of all potential musical functions—known so far—all at once.

We sought to remedy this deficiency by assembling an exhaustive list of the functions of music that have been identified in past research and putting them together in one questionnaire study. Based on the research reviewed in the first part of this study, we identified more than 500 items concerned with musical use or function. Specifically, we assembled an aggregate list of all the questions and statements encountered in the reviewed research that were either theoretically derived or used in empirical studies. Of course, many of the items are similar, analogous, or true duplicates. After eliminating or combining redundant items, we settled on a list of 129 distinct items. All of the items were phrased as statements in the form “I listen to music because … ” The complete list of items is given in Table ​ TableA3, A3 , together with their German versions as used in our study.

Participants were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with each item-statement on a scale from 0 ( not at all ) to 6 ( fully agree ). When responding to items, participants were instructed to think of any style of music and of any situation in which they would listen to music. In order to obtain a sample that was heterogeneous with regard to age and socioeconomic background, we distributed flyers promoting the Internet link to our study in a local electronics superstore. Recruitment of participants was further pursued via some mailing lists of German universities, students from comprehensive schools, and members of a local choir. As an incentive, respondents got the chance to win a tablet computer. A total of 834 people completed the survey. Respondents ranged from 8 to 85 years of age ( M = 26, SD = 10.4, 57% female).

Notice that in carrying out such a survey, we are assuming that participants have relatively accurate introspective access to their own motivations in pursuing particular musical behaviors, and that they are able to accurately recall the appropriate experiences. Of course, there exists considerable empirical research casting doubt on the accuracy of motivational introspection in self-report tasks (e.g., Wilson, 2002 ; Hirstein, 2005 ; Fine, 2006 ). These caveats notwithstanding, in light of the limited options for gathering pertinent empirical data, we nevertheless chose to pursue a survey-based approach.

Principal component analysis revealed three distinct dimensions behind the 129 items (accounting for about 40% of the variance), based on the scree plot. This solution was consistent over age groups and genders. The first dimension (eigenvalue: 15.2%) includes statements about self-related thoughts (e.g., music helps me think about myself), emotions and sentiments (e.g., music conveys feelings), absorption (e.g., music distracts my mind from the outside world), escapism (e.g., music makes me forget about reality), coping (e.g., music makes me believe I'm better able to cope with my worries), solace (e.g., music gives comfort to me when I'm sad), and meaning (e.g., music adds meaning to my life). It appears that this dimension expresses a very private relationship with music listening. Music helps people think about who they are, who they would like to be, and how to cut their own path. We suggest labeling this dimension self-awareness . The second dimension (eigenvalue: 13.7%) includes statements about social bonding and affiliation (e.g., music helps me show that I belong to a given social group; music makes me feel connected to my friends; music tells me how other people think). People can use music to feel close to their friends, to express their identity and values to others, and to gather information about their social environment. We suggest labeling this dimension social relatedness . The third dimension (eigenvalue: 10.2%) includes statements about the use of music as background entertainment and diversion (e.g., music is a great pastime; music can take my mind off things) and as a means to get into a positive mood and regulate one's physiological arousal (e.g., music can make me cheerful; music helps me relax; music makes me more alert). We suggest labeling this dimension arousal and mood regulation . All factor loadings are reported in Table ​ TableA3 A3 .

In order to analyze the relative significance of the three derived dimensions for the listeners, we averaged the ratings for all items contained in each dimension (see Figure ​ Figure1). 1 ). Arousal and mood regulation proved to be the most important dimension of music listening closely followed by self-awareness. These two dimensions appear to represent the two most potent reasons offered by people to explain why they listen to music, whereas social relatedness seems to be a relatively less important reason (ranging below the scale mean). This pattern was consistent across genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, and age groups. All differences between the three dimensions are significant (all p s < 0.001). The reliability indices (Cronbach's α) for the three dimensions are α = 0.97 for the first, α = 0.96 for the second, and α = 0.92 for the third dimension.

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The three distinct dimensions emerging from 129 reasons for listening to music . Error bars are 95% confidence intervals. Self-awareness: M = 3.59 ( SE = 0.037); social relatedness: M = 2.01 ( SE = 0.035); arousal and mood regulation: M = 3.78 ( SE = 0.032).

General discussion

Since the earliest writing on the psychology of music, researchers have been concerned with the many ways in which people use music in their lives. In the first part of this paper, we reviewed literature spanning psychological, musicological, biological, and anthropological perspectives on musical function. The picture that emerged from our review was somewhat confusing. Surveying the literature from the past 50 years, we identified more than 500 purported functions for music. From this list, we assembled a somewhat catholic list of 129 non-redundant musical functions. We then tested the verisimilitude of these posited functions by collecting survey responses from a comparatively large sample. PCA revealed just three distinct dimensions: People listen to music to achieve self-awareness , social relatedness , and arousal and mood regulation . We propose calling these the Big Three of music listening.

In part one of our study we noted that several empirical studies suggest grouping musical functions according to four dimensions: cognitive, emotional, social/cultural, and physiological/arousal-related functions. This raises the question of how our three-dimensional result might be reconciled with the earlier work. We propose that there is a rather straightforward interpretation that allows the four-dimensional perspective to be understood within our three-dimensional result. Cognitive functions are captured by the first dimension (self-awareness); social/cultural functions are captured by the second dimensions (social relatedness); physiological/arousal-related functions are captured by the third dimension (arousal and mood regulation); and emotional functions are captured by the first and third dimensions (self-awareness + arousal and mood regulation). Notably—as can be seen with the items in Table ​ TableA3—there A3 —there is a dissociation of emotion-related and mood-related functions. Emotions clearly appear in the first dimension (e.g., music conveys feelings; music can lighten my mood; music helps me better understand my thoughts and emotions), indicating that they might play an important role in achieving self-awareness, probably in terms of identity formation and self-perception, respectively. However, the regulation of moods clearly appears in the third dimension (e.g., music makes me cheerful; music can enhance my mood; I'm less bored when I listen to music), suggesting that moods are not central issues pertaining to identity. Along with the maintenance of a pleasant level of physiological arousal, the maintenance of pleasant moods is an effect of music that might rather be utilized as a “background” strategy, that is, not requiring a deep or aware involvement in the music. The regulation of emotions, on the other side, could be a much more conscious strategy requiring deliberate attention and devotion to the music. Music psychology so far has not made a clear distinction between music-related moods and emotions; and the several conceptions of music-related affect remain contentious (see Hunter and Schellenberg, 2010 ). Our results appear to call for a clearer distinction between moods and emotions in music psychology research.

As noted earlier, a presumed evolutionary origin for music need not be reflected in modern responses to music. Nevertheless, it is plausible that continuities exist between modern responses and possible archaic functions. Hence, the functions apparent in our study may echo possible evolutionary functions. The three functional dimensions found in our study are compatible with nearly all of the ideas about the potential evolutionary origin of music mentioned in the introduction. The idea that music had evolved as a means for establishing and regulating social cohesion and communication is consistent with the second dimension. The idea of music satisfying the basic human concerns of anxiety avoidance and quest for meaning is consistent with the first dimension. And the notion that the basic function of music could have been to produce dissociation and pleasure in the listener is consistent with the third dimension.

In light of claims that music evolved primarily as a means for promoting social cohesion and communication—a position favored by many scholars—the results appear noteworthy. Seemingly, people today hardly listen to music for social reasons, but instead use it principally to relieve boredom, maintain a pleasant mood, and create a comfortable private space. Such a private mode of music listening might simply reflect a Western emphasis on individuality: self-acknowledgement and well-being appear to be more highly valued than social relationships and relatedness (see also Roberts and Foehr, 2008 ; Heye and Lamont, 2010 ).

The results of the present study may be of interest to psychologists who make use of music as a tool or stimulus in their research. The way people usually listen to music outside the laboratory will surely influence how they respond to musical stimuli in psychological experiments. For those researchers who make use of music in psychological studies, some attention should be paid to how music is used in everyday life. The three dimensions uncovered in this study can provide a parsimonious means to identify the value a person sets on each of three different types of music use. It is also conceivable that individual patterns of music use are related to personality traits, a conjecture which may warrant future research.

With regard to music cognition, the present results are especially relevant to studies about aesthetic preferences, style or genre preferences, and musical choice. Recent research suggests that musical functions play an important role in the formation and development of music preferences (e.g., Schäfer and Sedlmeier, 2009 ; Rentfrow et al., 2011 ). It will be one of the future tasks of music cognition research to investigate the dependence of music preference and music choice on the functional use of music in people's lives.

By way of summary, in a self-report study, we found that people appear to listen to music for three major reasons, two of which are substantially more important than the third: music offers a valued companion, helps provide a comfortable level of activation and a positive mood, whereas its social importance may have been overvalued.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Overview of theoretical contributions that have derived, proposed, or addressed more than one function or functional aspect of music listening .

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Overview about empirical studies that have identified and/or investigated more than one function or functional aspect of music listening .

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is fpsyg-04-00511-i0002.jpg

In some places, we could only provide exemplary functions because either the total number of functions was too large to be displayed here or not all functions were given in the original publications .

The 129 statements referring to the functions of music exhaustively derived from past research, together with their means, standard deviations, and factor loadings (varimax rotated) .

Dimension 1, self-awareness; Dimension 2, social relatedness; Dimension 3, arousal and mood regulation .

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Taylor Swift: why academics are studying the pop star

Taylor Swift is the biggest pop star in the world and a seemingly unlikely subject of academic study around Australia and the world. The American superstar made Grammys history this month winning Album of the Year for the fourth time, soon after being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Forbes magazine declared the 34-year-old American the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry and fifth in the world for 2023, stating she is “an advocate for the empowerment of women and a champion for all musicians seeking greater ownership of their work.”

The conference or Swiftposium - hosted by the University of Melbourne in collaboration with the University of Sydney, RMIT University, Curtin University, Auckland University of Technology and Monash University - highlighted how a single artist has impacted contemporary life, with papers exploring Swift’s influence across the intersection of music, economics, business, media studies, health, and societal and cultural impact.

Brittany Spanos, New York University (NYU) Adjunct Instructor and senior writer for Rolling Stone opened the conference, delivering a keynote address examining Swift’s career in relation to the music industry, musicology, feminism and race.

a young woman in a pink dress is giving a talk about Taylor Swift

Dr Georgia Carroll presenting the keynote at the Swiftposium. 

Dr Georgia Carroll, a researcher who completed her PhD on fandom and celebrity in the Discipline of Sociology at the University of Sydney delivered the Early Career Researcher keynote on the second day. Dr Carroll’s keynote was titled: “’My pennies made your crown’: Taylor Swift as your Billionaire Best Friend” and explored the intersection of fandom and economic consumption in the Taylor Swift fan community. It examined how Swift encourages individuals to purchase merchandise, multiple versions of her albums, and concert tickets in order to be viewed as the "right" kind of fan and gain her attention. 

Other papers covered topics such as lyrical poetics, cyber-security, AI, mental health, public relations and “Swiftonomics”, referring to the economic impact of Taylor on local and global economies both in terms of her touring and her wider role in the entertainment industry. There was also a stream exploring Swift as a teaching tool in higher education, following recent courses on her and her work at institutions including Harvard University, Stanford University and NYU.

@abcnewsaus How well do you know Taylor Swift and her international impact? Academics from around the world have gathered at the Swiftposium conference in Melbourne to discuss her influence on music, cities, creatives and more.  #TaylorSwift #ErasTour #ErasTourAus #ABCNews ♬ original sound - ABC News Australia

University of Sydney experts from philosophy, sociology, English and psychology share why they are studying the lyrics and music of the American pop star.

Philosophy, forgiveness and Taylor Swift

Associate Professor Luke Russell , lecturer in ethics and critical thinking in the Discipline of Philosophy, said the singer-songwriter has a strong view on forgiveness, a subject he has recently published a book on, Real Forgiveness .  

“I’m a philosopher who writes on the topic of forgiveness," he said. "Taylor Swift holds an interesting and contentious view about forgiveness, a view that she has explained in interviews and has expressed in her songs. 

“Swift rejects the claim that we always ought to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who have wronged us. This puts her in conflict with advocates of unconditional forgiveness, including many Christians and therapists. I think that Swift is right about this, and her insights on this topic can help philosophers to see why sometimes forgiving is the wrong thing to do.” 

Greek philosophy, betrayal and Taylor Swift

Pop singer Taylor Swift wearing a sparkling bodysuit on stage for her Eras tour.

Taylor Swift performs in Nashville, May 5, 2023 Photo: George Walker IV, AP/AAP Photos

Dr Emily Hulme is a lecturer in Ancient Greek philosophy in the Discipline of Philosophy. Her research interests include Plato’s epistemology and ethics, philosophy of language from Parmenides to the Stoics, and arguments concerning the status of women in the ancient world. Dr Hulme said:

“I work in Greek philosophy, a philosophical tradition where reflection on art and emotions is understood to be a key part of our development as humans. We can learn a lot about ourselves through emotionally engaging with art that pulls no punches in talking about vulnerability, trust, and betrayal. And Taylor Swift has a lot of songs that fit that bill.” 

Sociology, identity, and Taylor Swift

Dr Georgia Carroll a researcher who completed her PhD in fandom in the Discipline of Sociology at the University of Sydney said:  “I wrote my PhD on Taylor Swift and her fandom because as a long-time Swiftie, I knew that there was something special about the relationship she shares with her fans. Many of Taylor's fans feel as though they have grown up alongside her, built a real connection with her, and that her music has served as a kind of overarching soundtrack to their lives. 

“As sociologists, we strive to understand society and its intersection with culture, identity, social relationships, and power structures, and celebrity fandom is a perfect window into all of those things.”  

English poetry, Shakespeare and Taylor Swift

Professor Liam Semler , is a Shakespeare scholar and teaches Early Modern Literature in the Discipline of English. He has a new paper on teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets using the lyrics from Taylor Swift’s album Midnights. He also teaches a unit called Shakespeare and Modernity, using Taylor Swift’s lyrics. Professor Semler said: “As the marketing for Midnights as a concept album started to permeate popular culture, I felt there was a fascinating, but not explicit, array of parallels to early modern sonnet sequences. 

“There are plenty of songs on the album that work well in class and connect to thematic and poetic elements relevant to Shakespeare’s sonnets. In my unit ‘Shakespeare and Modernity,’ Swift is part of a multidimensional picture as we explore the design principles and thematics of sonnet collections, including the literary work of Jen Bervin and Luke Kennard who rewrite the sonnets in fresh and provocative ways.” 

Psychology, archetypes and Taylor Swift

Kayla Greenstien, a PhD candidate in psychology said: “I study the theoretical orientations behind psychedelic therapies, including Jungian archetypes and using myths to explore deeper truths about human experiences. 

“After seeing Eras Tour footage on TikTok, I started thinking about Taylor Swift's entire artistic output as a form of uniquely modern mythopoeticism. There's a lot we can learn about archetypal experiences and who's voice they represent from looking at Swift's work through this lens.” 

Top Photo: Taylor Swift performs at the Monumental stadium during her Eras Tour concert in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko/AAP Photos)

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The Top 10 Most Interesting Music Research Topics

Music is a vast and ever-growing field. Because of this, it can be challenging to find excellent music research topics for your essay or thesis. Although there are many examples of music research topics online, not all are appropriate.

This article covers all you need to know about choosing suitable music research paper topics. It also provides a clear distinction between music research questions and topics to help you get started.

Find your bootcamp match

What makes a strong music research topic.

A strong music research topic must be short, straightforward, and easy to grasp. The primary aim of music research is to apply various research methods to provide valuable insights into a particular subject area. Therefore, your topic must also address issues that are relevant to present-day readers.

Also, for your research topic to be compelling, it should not be overly generic. Try to avoid topics that seem to be too broad. A strong research topic is always narrow enough to draw out a comprehensive and relevant research question.

Tips for Choosing a Music Research Topic

  • Check with your supervisor. In some cases, your school or supervisor may have specific requirements for your research. For example, some music programs may favor a comparative instead of a descriptive or correlational study. Knowing what your institution demands is essential in choosing an appropriate research topic.
  • Explore scientific papers. Journal articles are a great way to find the critical areas of interest in your field of study. You can choose from a wide range of journals such as The Journal of Musicology and The Journal of the Royal Musical Association . These resources can help determine the direction of your research.
  • Determine your areas of interest. Choosing a topic you have a personal interest in will help you stay motivated. Researching music-related subjects is a painstakingly thorough process. A lack of motivation would make it difficult to follow through with your research and achieve optimal results.
  • Confirm availability of data sources. Not all music topics are researchable. Before selecting a topic, you must be sure that there are enough primary and secondary data sources for your research. You also need to be sure that you can carry out your research with tested and proven research methods.
  • Ask your colleagues: Asking questions is one of the many research skills you need to cultivate. A short discussion or brainstorming session with your colleagues or other music professionals could help you identify a suitable topic for your research paper.

What’s the Difference Between a Research Topic and a Research Question?

A research topic is a particular subject area in a much wider field that a researcher chooses to place his emphasis on. Most subjects are extensive. So, before conducting research, a researcher must first determine a suitable area of interest that will act as the foundation for their investigation.

Research questions are drawn from research topics. However, research questions are usually more streamlined. While research topics can take a more generic viewpoint, research questions further narrow the focus down to specific case studies or seek to draw a correlation between two or more datasets.

How to Create Strong Music Research Questions

Strong music research questions must be relevant and specific. Music is a broad field with many genres and possible research areas. However, your research question must focus on a single subject matter and provide valuable insights. Also, your research question should be based on parameters that can be quantified and studied using available research methods.

Top 10 Music Research Paper Topics

1. understanding changes in music consumption patterns.

Although several known factors affect how people consume music, there is still a significant knowledge gap regarding how these factors influence listening choices. Your music research paper could outline some of these factors that affect music consumer behavior and highlight their mechanism of action.

2. Hip-hop Culture and Its Effect on Teenage Behavior

In 2020, hip-hop and RnB had the highest streaming numbers , according to Statista. Without a doubt, hip-hop music has had a significant influence on the behavior of young adults. There is still the need to conduct extensive research on this subject to determine if there is a correlation between hip-hop music and specific behavioral patterns, especially among teenagers.

3. The Application of Music as a Therapeutic Tool

For a long time, music has been used to manage stress and mental health disorders like anxiety, PTSD, and others. However, the role of music in clinical treatment still remains a controversial topic. Further research is required to separate fact from fiction and provide insight into the potential of music therapy.

4. Contemporary Rock Music and Its Association With Harmful Social Practices

Rock music has had a great influence on American culture since the 1950s. Since its rise to prominence, it has famously been associated with vices such as illicit sex and abuse of recreational drugs. An excellent research idea could be to evaluate if there is a robust causal relationship between contemporary rock music and adverse social behaviors.

5. The Impact of Streaming Apps on Global Music Consumption

Technology has dramatically affected the music industry by modifying individual music consumption habits. Presently, over 487 million people subscribe to a digital streaming service, according to Statista. Your research paper could examine how much of an influence popular music streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have had on how we listen to music.

6. Effective American Music Education Practices

Teaching practices have always had a considerable impact on students’ academic success. However, not all strategies have an equal effect in enhancing learning experiences for students. You can conduct comparative research on two or more American music education practices and evaluate their impact on learning outcomes.

7. The Evolution of Music Production in the Technology-driven Era

One of the aspects of music that is experiencing a massive change is sound production. More than ever before, skilled, tech-savvy music producers are in high demand. At the moment, music producers earn about $70,326 annually, according to ZipRecruiter. So, your research could focus on the changes in music production techniques since the turn of the 21st century.

8. Jazz Music and Its Influence on Western Music Genres

The rich history of jazz music has established it as one of the most influential genres of music since the 19th century. Over the years, several famous composers and leading voices across many other western music genres have been shaped by jazz music’s sound and culture. You could carry out research on the influence of this genre of music on modern types of music.

9. The Effect of Wars on Music

Wars have always brought about radical changes in several aspects of culture, including music styles. Throughout history, we have witnessed wars result in the death of famous musicians. If you are interested in learning about music history in relation to global events, a study on the impact of wars on music will make an excellent music research paper.

10. African Tribal Percussion

African music is well recognized for its unique application of percussion. Historically, several tribes and cultures had their own percussion instruments and original methods of expression. Unfortunately, this musical style has mainly gone undocumented. An in-depth study into ancient African tribal percussion would make a strong music research paper.

Other Examples of Music Research Topics & Questions

Music research topics.

  • Popular musical styles of the 20th century
  • The role of musical pieces in political movements
  • Biographies of influential musicians during the baroque period
  • The influence of classical music on modern-day culture
  • The relationship between music and fashion

Music Research Questions

  • What is the relationship between country music and conservationist ideologies among middle-aged American voters?
  • What is the effect of listening to Chinese folk music on the critical thinking skills of high school students?
  • How have electronic music production technologies influenced the sound quality of contemporary music?
  • What is the correlation between punk music and substance abuse among Black-American males?
  • How does background music affect learning and information retention in children?

Choosing the Right Music Research Topic

Your research topic is the foundation on which every other aspect of your study is built. So, you must select a music research topic that gives you room to adequately explore intriguing hypotheses and, if possible, proffer practically applicable solutions.

Also, if you seek to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Music , you must be prepared to conduct research during your study. Choosing the right music research topic is the first step in guaranteeing good grades and delivering relevant, high-quality contributions in this constantly expanding field.

Music Research Topics FAQ

A good music research topic should be between 10 to 12 words long. Long, wordy music essay topics are usually confusing. They can make it difficult for readers to understand the goal of your research. Avoid using lengthy phrases or vague terms that could confuse the reader.

Journal articles are the best place to find helpful resources for your music research. You can explore reputable, high-impact journal articles to see if any research has been done related to your chosen topic. Journal articles also help to provide data for comparison while carrying out your research.

Primary sources carry out their own research and cite their own data. In contrast, secondary sources report data obtained from a primary source. Although primary sources are regarded as more credible, you can include a good mixture of primary and secondary sources in your research.

The most common research methods for music research are qualitative, quantitative, descriptive, and analytical. Your research strategy is arguably the most crucial part of your study. You must learn different research methods to determine which one would be the perfect fit for your particular research question.

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Music education, support networks, and continuity are key factors regulating adolescents' arts participation, says study

by University of the Arts Helsinki


How do young people find their way to music-making? Researchers Anna Kuoppamäki from the University of the Arts Helsinki and Fanny Vilmilä from the Finnish Youth Research Network identified factors that had a significant impact on the formation of the musical life courses of the young people interviewed in their study.

The researchers conclude that among young music-makers, access to music education such as available music tuition or living place; varying support networks including important motivators like family members, peers, or teachers; and continuity of musical activities seemed to be the key factors regulating their arts participation and agency in cultural authorship.

Kuoppamäki and Vilmilä also constructed five musical pathways understood as ongoing processes in which learning may take on varying forms and intensities.

Within the pathways they identified different ways and modes of arts participation—but also the sense of it as one's own mindset connected to both identity formation and to acting musically in the world. The ways of arts participation varied between the pathways. Also, the sense of arts participation alternated and was, in that way, pathway -sensitive.

Extensively supported formal pathway

The interviewees on this pathway started their musical training in early childhood, and their mothers were an important source of inspiration when applying to an extra-curricular music school.

They all participated in several musical activities: learning one or more musical instruments in a music school, participating actively in school music education, singing in a choir in commercial productions, or playing in a pop or jazz band. They all had plans for musical careers.

Kuoppamäki and Vilmilä point out that all these young people received extensive social and economic support from their families and teachers, as well as their music schools, to pursue their musical ambitions.

Self-forged pathway

The interviewees on this pathway started their musical activities in their primary school years. Two of them started to learn an instrument with private teachers. The third one applied to an extra-curricular music school at the age of 9.

According to the researchers, all these young people were learning-oriented. However, in contrast to the first group, their musical pathways were not straightforward. The researchers describe their musical pathways as self-forged.

On the self-forged pathway, arts participation manifested in an ability to make individual choices when authoring one's musical life.

On the other hand, two of the three interviewees expressed how they lacked peers at primary school with whom to share their musical interests. One of them, who had taken private lessons in piano, remembered:

" It was just that no one else was interested in it [classical music]. So, I was a bit different from the others, and they wanted to bully me for that [. . .] at the time it was quite heavy. "

Kuoppamäki and Vilmilä conclude that for the male interviewees on this pathway, the challenges in arts participation came down to a lack of collective meaning-making and a sense of belonging. Their peer groups supported the ideal of hegemonic masculinity in which the arts were not included.

Family and nonformal activity-oriented pathway

The third group took part in daily music-making with their family members already from early childhood . The researchers see this low-profile music-making not just as a way to engage in meaningful relationships within their families but also as an important environment for early-stage musical learning and cultural production as part of everyday life.

For example, one interviewee saw his father as a musical role model and started to play in the same church band:

"I remember how I looked up at him [. . .] how on earth can he play all those different instruments, and I wanted to be able to do it one day, too. And ever since, when at the age of five . . . I began to learn [to play instruments], I started to make my own music as well."

Later in their adolescence, these young people found their way to music-related youth work.

Consequently, for these young people, it was collective endeavors through which cultural participation took place. Moreover, their agency was distinctive in searching out opportunities for music-making and their energetic attitude toward nonformal music activities, the researchers conclude.

Open-access-oriented pathway

A strong self-directiveness in making music was typical for young people on the fourth pathway—even though the families or music teachers were supportive.

Two of the interviewees expressed interest in music at an early age but could not find either the space or activities for sustained music-making. Later, in their adolescence, they both found a musical community at school. The third interviewee of this group started his own rock band with his classmates at the age of 10 and carried on playing.

Research has emphasized the school's role in the formation of bands as social spaces to share musical interests and aspirations and in offering varied resources to explore music. This is evident in one of the interviewee's narrations, "Our music teacher told us that in his point of view, a music classroom is useless if it isn't used outside of classes. [. . .] And I took it like literally. [. . .] He was so jazzed up for the fact that I was always using it [the classroom] so actively."

In addition to school, friendships and the sharing of musical tastes play an important role in young people's musical learning practices in general as was the case also with these interviewees.

Peer-oriented pathway

In contrast to the other pathways, the interviewees on the peer-oriented pathway became interested in music relatively late, during their early adolescence. The defining factor was their involvement with music together with peers.

Kuoppamäki and Vilmilä state that the collective dimension of musical agency was significant throughout the peer-oriented pathway. Together with their peers, they engaged in music-making facilitated through youth work.

Unlike in the other pathways, these adolescents also facilitated opportunities for their peers. According to them, sharing opportunities and skills complemented their own.

The interviewees all experienced their musical skills to be insufficient compared to others who, for example, had made music longer or had had some tuition beyond music classes in school.

Nevertheless, these adolescents did not become discouraged by this feeling of being an underdog. Instead, they actively aimed at developing their musical skills within the settngs they could access.

Young people should be seen as cultural agents, says researcher Anna Kuoppamäki.

Young people as cultural agents and authors

The researchers point out that access to music education is regulated by various social and cultural factors, such as one's knowledge of existing opportunities or types of tuition, gender, or even age. However, not all young people are interested in formal music programs, which tend to offer limited opportunities for individual creative expression and independent art-making.

"Not only does this suggest that institutions need to learn and transform, but that the way young people are perceived in music education also needs to develop toward a broader view in which they are not merely seen as music learners but simultaneously as cultural agents and authors of their own musical lives," they write.

The work is published in the journal Research Studies in Music Education .

Provided by University of the Arts Helsinki

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Making a Song and Dance About It: The Effectiveness of Teaching Children Vocabulary with Animated Music Videos

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Programs that engage young children in movement and song to help them learn are popular but experimental evidence on their impact is sparse. We use an RCT to evaluate the effectiveness of Big Word Club (BWC), a classroom program that uses music and dance videos for 3-5 minutes per day to increase vocabulary. We conducted a field experiment with 818 preschool and kindergarten students in 47 schools in three U.S. states. We find that treated students scored higher on a test of words targeted by the program (0.30 SD) after four months of use and this effect persisted for two months.

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Listening to Music Is Better When It’s a Conversation Among Friends

At group listening sessions, everybody gets a turn to speak by choosing a song.

A hatching-style illustration of friends listening to records.

By Tim Davis

If you are the type of person who bides your time waiting for any conversation to pivot to music, who scrabbles through the dollar-record bins of junk shops or mudlarks around the streaming playlists of your favorite musicians hunting for rarities, you might be a Golden Ear. You almost certainly love music, but odds are, you are listening to it alone. The Golden Ears are devoted to listening to music together.

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By now we’re used to listening to music for one another, in a way that privileges adventure over taste.

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The pandemic was very hard on us. Of all the alonenesses the pandemic spawned, no longer listening with my friends was among the hardest. Once Dr. Fauci said we could, we went outside with Bluetooth speakers. Not wanting to bother anyone, we set up a fire pit deep in the woods and strung up lights. The first song we played there was Count Basie’s “Li’l Darlin’,” a tune so confident and leisurely that it felt as if Basie himself were leaning down from the bandstand, telling us in that dark moment that everything would be all right.

We named the clearing after the song, and the music we play there trends toward emotional and contemplative uplift. Sitting by the fire after one of these gorgeous plays, someone will often break the silence with a sly, “Sorry, Officer!” — imagining a state trooper showing up to find a ring of middle-aged adults in Adirondack chairs listening to Jimmy Giuffre.

For almost four years we’ve assembled there, through snow and summer cicadas, listening to exquisite music accompanied by caroling coyotes. There have been changes. Being outdoors meant embracing Spotify over record players, and playing music from our phones brought new possibilities and pitfalls. No one looking at their phone is actually listening to anyone or anything else, so we have regulated phone use to the period when the next player is searching for a song. For lifetime record scroungers, switching to streaming services at first felt gravityless; there was too much choice. But being able to improvise responses to one another’s songs in the moment from a vast grab bag of recorded music made the game of collective listening more playful.

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Tim Davis is a photographer and associate professor of photography at Bard College.

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    Popular music fans, as well as scholars of recording history and technology and students of the intersections between music and cultural history will all find this book to be informative and interesting. Blues, Funk, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Hip Hop, and Rap by Eddie S. Meadows. Call Number: REF ML128.P63 M43 2010.

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  18. 25 Most Popular Music Research Paper Topics for Writing

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  19. Editorial: The Impact of Music on Human Development and Well-Being

    There is an increasing body of empirical and experimental studies concerning the wider benefits of musical activity, and research in the sciences associated with music suggests that there are many dimensions of human life—including physical, social, educational, psychological (cognitive and emotional)—which can be affected positively by successf...

  20. The psychological functions of music listening

    Part one of the paper reviews the research contributions that have explicitly referred to musical functions. It is concluded that a comprehensive investigation addressing the basic dimensions underlying the plethora of functions of music listening is warranted. ... The emotional use of popular music by adolescents, in Mass Media and Society ...

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  22. The Top 10 Most Interesting Music Research Topics

    Posts Tech Resources The Top 10 Most Interesting Music Research Topics The Top 10 Most Interesting Music Research Topics By Uwidia Emmanuel Updated April 23, 2022 Music is a vast and ever-growing field. Because of this, it can be challenging to find excellent music research topics for your essay or thesis.

  23. How Music Awakens the Heart: An Experimental Study on Music, Emotions

    Listening to music as a transcendent experience. In their most recent work, scholars in the field of positive media psychology have identified research designed to investigate and understand self-transcendent media experiences as essential to moving the field forward (Oliver et al., Citation 2018; Raney et al., Citation 2018).Self-transcendence refers to "a motivational state in which the ...

  24. (PDF) The Impact of Music on Memory

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  25. Music education, support networks, and continuity are key factors

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  26. Making a Song and Dance About It: The Effectiveness of Teaching

    Programs that engage young children in movement and song to help them learn are popular but experimental evidence on their impact is sparse. We use an RCT to evaluate the effectiveness of Big Word Club (BWC), a classroom program that uses music and dance videos for 3-5 minutes per day to increase vocabulary.

  27. Listening to Music Is Better When It's a Conversation Among Friends

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  29. Gartner Emerging Technologies and Trends Impact Radar for 2024

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