International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 3 Review 1

September 26, 2002


Parncutt, R. & McPherson, G. (Eds.) (2002). The science and psychology of music performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning, New York: Oxford University Press.

400 pp.

$45         ISBN 0195138104

Reviewed by Peter R. Webster
Northwestern University

One sign of a maturing profession is the continuing emergence of volumes devoted to the review and interpretation of research findings. For music teaching and learning, the publication of two handbooks of research (Colwell, 1992; Colwell & Richardson, 2002) in the last ten years has been a remarkable achievement. The release of this book adds further to our understanding of music as a deeply meaningful human experience. Expertly edited by Richard Parncutt and Gary McPherson, the volume provides very readable reviews of important research about music performance. The twenty-one chapters by forty-one different scholars provide short and generally well-crafted introductions to topics in music performance, organized into sections on the developing musician, performance skills, and instruments and ensembles. Because systematic reviews of research on music performance in the context of teaching and learning are remarkably rare, this book is a welcomed addition to the literature.

The volume is of modest length, just under 400 pages. The chapters are, by design, restricted to about twelve pages each and include approximately fifty references in each chapter drawn from the research literatures in music education, music psychology, and related fields. Not all citations at the end of each chapter are cited in the body of the text. This makes the references less a set of citations and more a collected set of further readings on each topic for the reader.

Each chapter is jointly written by a “…scientist (psychologist, acoustician, physiologist, or physician) and …a performer or music educator” (p. ix). This was done in order to help bridge the gap between research and practice. A careful review of the pairings reveals that this approach was not always followed in the strictest of terms, but this does not affect greatly the success of each topic reviewed. I found nearly every chapter provided a workable balance between the more technical and the applied—a major tribute to the authors and the editors.

It should be noted, too, that the team of writers is decidedly international in flavor, with over ten different countries represented. There is strong representation from Scandinavian countries as well as Germany, England, and the United States. Clearly, the editors worked very hard to find the best people for each topic and were not content to simply include those that were conveniently located in one region of the world. This is a major strength of the volume.

In terms of content, the chapters represent a wide range of topics. The first section on the developing musician features six chapters, including an excellent account of motivation (Susan O’Neill and Gary McPherson) and brain mechanisms (Eckart Altenmuller and Wilfried Gruhn). The motivation chapter is a good overview of the many theories in the general literature and the authors tie this well to the specific work in music. Readers interested in the latest thinking on brain function will find the chapter on this topic to be effective in linking the most recent research to the theories and practices of music education. As we begin to do more credible data collection with brain scans taken under more valid and complex music conditions, this approach to objective study of music processing will hold great promise. This first section of the book also contains chapters on musical potential and environmental influences, performance anxiety, and music medicine issues.

The second section on sub-skills of performance is the most directly related to work in music cognition and contains topics of critical importance to performers and educators. Chapters on sound and sign, sight-reading, memory, intonation, and body movement are all useful contributions, but four particular chapters are worth special note. The summary on music improvisation (Barry Kenny and Martin Gellrich) is one of the strongest in the book. The review of theoretical positions is excellent and the list of references for further study will be very helpful to researchers.

The chapter on music practice (Nancy Barry and Susan Hallam) provides a review that is badly needed in our field. The concluding part of this chapter on strategies for teachers is outstanding and needs to be read by every music educator. Of all the many requests we make of our students as music teachers, practicing is perhaps the most common, but amazingly is the least known. Hopefully, the chapter will be an excellent catalyst for further study.

Two chapters on music communication represent some of the most exciting, recent work in music cognition. The way performers communicate structure is the subject of the first of these chapters (Anders Friberg and Giovanni Umberto Battel). Here we read of the use of technology to help us understand the subtleties that performers employ in tempi, tonal shaping, and dynamics to make a musical performance communicative of meaning. For those who might have not kept current with the research in music cognition in the last ten years, the summaries of research described here will reveal that scholars no longer are content with only reductionistic studies of rather trivial phenomena. This is reinforced by the companion chapter on emotional communication (Patrik Juslin and Roland Persson). Here, we read about recent experimental work with a technique called “cognitive feedback” which is designed to help performers understand how to more accurately communicate a chosen affect. I enjoyed these two chapters especially because they underscore the important role of the listener as part of what performers intend and do.

The final section of this book contains chapters that speak to the specifics of instruments and voice. Here, the chapters become more specific to individual media of expression such as the solo voice and string and wind instruments. The slant moves from the cognitive to the acoustical. The chapter on wind instruments (Leonardo Fuks and Heinz Fadle), for example, summarizes the important issues of the reed, air column, and embouchure. I was pleased to see attention to pedagogy throughout these more technical chapters, including a nice reference to the teachings of Arnold Jacobs in the wind instruments chapter. The chapter on rehearsing and conducting (Harry Price and James Byo), though well written, seemed out of place to me as a chapter in this section of the book. It might have been better placed in the middle section.

On a more critical note, there are some topics missing. The editors make clear that the book is not meant to be comprehensive, pointing to the lack of chapters on certain topics such as gender studies, technology, and motor skills. There is also no inclusion of percussion instruments in the final section of the book. I will also note the lack of attention to music performance in other cultures besides that of the West, however it is hard to imagine a chapter that might have been written on this topic that would follow the structure used here. Perhaps, too, more could have been written about the social context of performance, going beyond the very small attention paid to this topic in the chapter on environments (Heiner Gembris and Jane Davidson).

Each author group was asked to close their chapters with sections on the application of research to practice. This was not always done with the kind of thoughtfulness that could be expected. Especially given the subtitle of the book, “Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning,” one would expect more attention to strategy. Perhaps the reason for this is the natural conservatism of researchers in going too far beyond the data, yet I would have enjoyed more attention to this stated goal of the editors.

This volume has much to commend it, and I highly recommend it to music educators, especially those hundreds of graduate students who are seeking inspiration for systematic research topics that might address music performance. Parncutt and McPherson and their team of carefully chosen scholars have created a wonderful book. As a newly appointed academic dean, I will be sharing this book with not only my music education and cognition colleagues but also my performance faculty as well. Imagine having something exciting to talk about in meetings besides teaching loads and travel budgets.


Colwell, R. (Ed.), (1992). Handbook of research on music teaching and learning, New York: Macmillan Publishers.

Colwell, R. & Richardson, C. (Eds.), (2002). The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning, New York: Macmillan Publishers.

About the Reviewer

Peter Webster
Dean of Academic Affairs and the
John Beattie Professor of Music Education and Technology
School of Music
Northwestern University

Peter Webster is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and the John Beattie Professor of Music Education and Music Technology at the School of Music, Northwestern University. He holds degrees in music education from the University of Southern Maine (BS) and the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester (MM, PhD). His teaching responsibilities at Northwestern University include courses in research, music technology, and creative thinking in music. His published work includes articles on technology, perception, preference, and creative thinking in music which have appeared in journals in and outside of music. Webster is co-author with David Williams of Experiencing Music Technology, 2nd edition, the standard textbook and CD used in introductory college courses in music technology.

   home   |   articles   |   abstracts   |   editors   |   submit   |   subscribe   |  

You are visitor number since September 26, 2002.