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Dr. Barbara Roth / Music Pedagogy
Photo: UniService Transfer

Everybody can talk about music...

Dr. Barbara Roth teaches music psychology at the University of Wuppertal

A study by British psychologists Peter Jason Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling from the University of Cambridge shows that people can be better judged by their taste in music than by a photograph. The respective music preferences, the researchers summarize, allow us to draw conclusions about the personality of a person. Music psychology, as a branch of musicology, uses psychological methods to investigate the perception, experience and understanding of music. Since the summer semester, Dr. Barbara Roth, lecturer of the Department of Music Pedagogy, has been teaching this newer scientific discipline at the University of Wuppertal. "The exciting thing about it is that you have a lot of interfaces to other sciences. On the one hand, of course, to music education and psychology, but also to sociology, medicine and media sciences" says the academic working at a Remscheid secondary school. Music psychology is about music culture and musical socialization, basics of music perception and the development of musical abilities, starting before birth, through kindergarten and school time, but also beyond. "You always have your life span in mind," explains Roth, and that is why media, advertising and musical personalities later started to play another important role.

The responsibility of music teacher

We have a great responsibility as music teachers, because it is about conveying culture and creating spaces for aesthetic experiences, says Roth, who defines the term musical talent broadly. Fortunately music lessons and the evaluation criteria have changed, the mere evaluation according to the singing qualities of the pupils is over. Today, music lessons are diverse. The senior teacher is critical of the various tests used to measure musical talent, because there is no clearly defined concept of talent. "When we speak of musical talent or musicality, it consists of many sub-aspects", but the tests only focus on certain areas, e.g. pitch differentiation and perception of rhythm, and often ignore non-European musical cultures. With her students, Roth discovers musical talents in the most diverse facets.
Everyone can talk about music. Most students are masters of their own musical styles. When they talk about it in class, teachers have often only heard about it marginally, simply because the development is so fast. They are little experts when it comes to their own music. In order to get a feeling for rhythm, the music educator sometimes takes unorthodox paths. "There are children who can't sing well and also have difficulties making music in class, but they are not good at it. But I experience it again and again that also boys suddenly say: 'Can't we dance a rap or dance to another song?' And then they start and the rhythm is right! So there's more to musicality than what's given in the classroom and what's written down in the curriculum." She is also not afraid of digital media, knowing that her protégés can handle these tools well. Roth thinks outside the box and focuses on creativity. New media would give children who could not read music or had no music lessons in elementary school the opportunity to create mini-compositions themselves. They also give them the opportunity to experiment with sounds and to develop sound ideas that could not be created in class or in music clubs due to the (limited) school instruments. Visits to concerts and a look behind the scenes of an opera house expand the school's range of activities. Even Mozart's Kleine Nachtmusik or Smetana's Moldau would be justified in spite of the prophecies of doom, because "it is part of our culture!" Music psychology can be very helpful here at some points.
One area that is becoming more and more important, explains Roth, "is motivation and practice. How do I overcome myself when I don't feel like it? Whether in instrumental lessons or in group music making. How do I keep time signatures apart? How do I learn notes? If I apply myself, make an effort, if I practice, then I can also be successful. Learning about yourself, I can get further by practicing, is an important experience and courage management."
Roth picks up her pupils and explains to them that the cell phone ringtone favored by the children is actually a baroque piece, or familiar themes from classical music are processed into pop songs, thereby creating connections where there are apparently no connections.

Open ears

Up to primary school age, all children have so-called open ears, says Roth, a tolerance for almost all musical styles of our culture, which only changes from about the age of eight. The parental home also has an enormous influence, because what mother and father listen to or communicate, the child inevitably takes over. Only when children become independent and form their own peer groups, the taste in music changes, which often depends on our emotions. Thus we listen to extremely different music when we are angry, sad or overjoyed, or just want to switch off. Music accompanies us on our car rides, is the digital music service (Spotify) in almost every school smartphone and guides our buying behavior while shopping.

The effect of film music

The effect of film music on the audience is a recurrent theme in music psychology and the question arises why certain sounds evoke particular emotions. Roth speaks of the guiding theme technique. "We often know at a very early stage whether the protagonists are good or bad, because the guiding themes inform us about the character of the person." The same applies to nightly noises with dark music, for example, which let us know that there is imminent danger. "Sometimes you also have a long lasting high tone, which becomes uncomfortable due to the duration in which it is held. If the tone were shorter, it would have no effect. Only through the length we become aware. And pupils can be sensitized to this very well. You can use this medium to train sensitive hearing," explains Roth, "they recognize different parameters, rhythm, dynamics, instrumentation and tempo. This again is an interface to music education.

The range of music psychology seems to be endlessly applicable. Students can be wonderfully prepared for working with children with this discipline and generate learning success through motivational mechanisms. Barbara Roth gives the decisive tip at the end. "I have the feeling that if you value pupils or students," she concludes, "then you can get them excited about many topics!"

Uwe Blass (Interview on 17.09.2020)


Dr. Barbara Roth studied music and German language and literature to become a teacher in Cologne and Siegen and received her doctorate in 2011. The senior teacher has been working at a grammar school in Remscheid since 2013. This year, she took on a teaching assignment at the University of Wuppertal in the Department of Music Pedagogy of the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies.