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Raymond MacDonald
Music and sound

One on one... with Raymond MacDonald

Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation - including extra online-only questions and answers

01 December 2009

One moment that changed the course of your career
Playing a Javanese gamelan with children who have learning disabilities. I was working as a very inexperienced community musician when, at one session, the penny dropped and I saw tangible links between my work as a musician and the psychology
I had studied in a somewhat blasé fashion as an undergrad. 

One proud moment
Six months ago I played a gig with Edwyn Collins, and backing him on songs that helped define my adolescence felt like getting the chance to finally play for Celtic.

One therapeutic application of music
Daniel Barenboim in his BBC Reith Lecture series claimed that musical improvisation is the highest form of art. Around the same time Willie Wonka (Johnny Depp incarnation) called improvisation a parlour trick that anyone can do. While both conceptions are flawed,
I am closer to Wonka than Barenboim in my belief that improvisation is a fundamental life process that, when utilised in appropriate contexts, can have life-changing effects. It can also facilitate exploration of personal and group creativity in quite startling and revelatory ways, regardless of musical experience. Paradoxically many very experienced and highly trained musicians feel that they cannot improvise and so it is an underused and misunderstood process. However, this is slowly changing, and I believe that improvisation is a process whose time has come; musically, therapeutically, aesthetically and psychologically.

One book
How Musical is Man by John Blacking. Concise, accessible and way ahead of its time in terms of the assertions regarding the innate capacities of humans for musical communication and the stifling influence of Western constructions of musical ability. We now have the evidence he lacked to support his assertions.   

One challenge
Unchaining our consistent musical underachieving to help maximise the potential of musical participation in all its manifestations. Even if musical talent is normally distributed within the general population it is undoubtedly distributed around a mean that is much higher than received wisdom suggests. For example, our work has shown how those with learning difficulties or mental health problems can learn to play a musical instrument and that there are resultant psychological benefits. We also need to address why many adolescents lose interest in formal music education around the time music becomes their most important recreational activity.

One nugget of advice
As Chet Baker and John Irvine both said, ‘get obsessed and stay obsessed’.

One more thought
The concept of universal musicality is no longer a
vague utopian ideal – there is evidence from just about every branch of psychology to support this claim. Music is so completely meshed into our lives that it provides an excellent site for the study of basic psychological processes that constitute the grand subdisciplines of psychology (cognitive, developmental, neuro, social, personality, clinical, etc.). We are all musical. Every human being has a biological and social guarantee of musicianship.

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One cultural recommendation
The TV series The Wire has all sorts of qualities; not least of which is Shakespearean gravitas in its portrayal of the human condition juxtaposed against extreme situations. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman) is one of those often quoted but unwatched films. However, it is a beautifully made and very accessible study of an academic at the end of his career receiving an honorary doctorate. It also contains a classic and hugely influential Freudian inspired dream sequence. If I had £5 for every time I have watched this film… I would have £25.

One more proud moment
My proud moments happen when I see my daughters Eva and Maria playing music or being with their friends and happy. I guess I also feel a sense of pride when I read work or hear a presentation by PhD or ex-PhD students. Not that I claim any great influence here. I see my role as a cheerleader. The image of me in a short skirt waving my pompoms around is not pleasant I know, but I see accentuating the positive and trying to steer people away from blind alleys, pessimism and prevarication that can trip postgraduates up as one of the main jobs of a supervisor.

One thing that ‘organised psychology’ could do better
The BPS could take a more active role in trying to ensure that REF doesn’t further fragment psychology as a discipline.

One hero from the world of psychology
George Lewis, Professor of Music at Columbia University. An inspiring communicator in both his books and lectures, award winning researcher, a member of the Count Basie band but has also been at the centre of American and European experimental music for 40 years. His definition of music through psychological processes has been inspiring and he is also one of those people you just feel good being around, such is his generosity of spirit.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Psychology provides well-evidenced strategies for helping ameliorate distress and generally improving people’s lives.

One person who inspired you
Paddy O’Donnell, Professor of Psychology at Glasgow University, made me laugh and think about the world differently when I studied introductory psychology. He also provided consistent support and good advice for me as an undergraduate and postgraduate when I wasn’t anywhere near the top of the class. I don’t think he necessarily saw anything special in me but he is a genuinely wise person, generous with his time and one of academia’s ‘good guys’.

One alternative career path you might have chosen
I realised in my mid-20’s that doing something that didn’t involve music was always going to be, at best, vaguely unsatisfying.