Music Cognition (PSYC 4541), CU–Boulder, Summer 2016
Kris Shaffer, Ph.D. – instructor

Music is an art. Music is a language. Music is therapy. Music is a clinical tool. Music is a weapon. Music is an area of humanistic inquiry. Music is math. Music is neuroscience. Music is communal. Music is deeply personal. Music is bug spray. Music is religion. Music is identity formation. Music is culture. Music is psychology.

Music is nearly unparalleled in its ability to engage just about every facet of our lives. Perhaps only language has the same reach into our biology, psychology, individual identity, and social community. Music both frames, and is dependent on, our memory. Music both affects and flows from our emotions. Music both embodies and transcends cultural prejudice. And despite its heavily scientific base, even professional musicians treat it with an air of mystery.

Music cognition explores all of these things. In a sense, music cognition is the study of music. And that is why to be a “cognitive musicologist” is as vague as to be a “musician.” Some cognitive musicologists study the scientific basis of music theory; some explore the anthropological side of music in community; others are psychologists, neurologists, or psycholinguists with an interest in music; still others are therapists, studying music for its clinical value and employing it in the treatment of Alzheimers, autism, amnesia, or stroke-enduced aphasia.

A course in music cognition could easily become a class in neurology, psychology, linguistics, computational analysis, medicine… This class will serve as an overview of concepts that are foundational to these areas, and an introduction to some of those more specific fields. Final projects will afford students opportunities to delve deeply into one of these areas in accordance with their interests and goals.

Starting out

See the Getting started page.

General course information

Course title: Advanced Topics in Psychology: Music Cognition
Course number: PSYC 4541
Term: Summer 2016 (June)
Instructor: Kris Shaffer, Ph.D.
Email: (backup:
Twitter: @krisshaffer
Course website:
Online community: Slack
Gradebook: D2L

Prerequisite knowledge

Because music cognition is a heavily interdisciplinary field, I do not expect all students to come into the course at the same level of understanding of every topic we study. In fact, I expect that some of you will be more expert than me on some of the topics we cover. As many educators have said before me, “All of us are smarter than any of us,” and we will seek to build on our complementary expertises, under my guidance as a music theoretical expert who has done both research and teaching in the cognitive science of music. That said, all students should be at least upper-division undergraduates majoring in one of the fields this course engages (psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, music, linguistics, medicine, clinical therapy, etc.). This will ensure that all students have built a strong foundation in a field that will serve as a point of reference from which to relate to the topics of this course, and a base of expertise from which they can speak in our group discussions. Permission of the instructor may also be granted to students not meeting these prerequisites but who are otherwise prepared to engage these materials and contribute to our discussions.

Required course materials

All other required class materials will be posted or linked to on the course site.

N.B.: Before purchasing the two textbooks, please consider the choice of print v. electronic carefully. Research suggests that paper copies help most people retain information better than electronic books. On the other hand, ebooks are searchable in ways that print books are not. And, of course, cost is a factor. Finally, some ebook publishers collect data from consumers’ ereaders, while others (and paper, of course) do not.

Reaching the instructor

The best way to reach me during the course is via Slack. If you have a private question, you can send me a private Slack message. If you have a question that others would benefit from hearing, you can ask me a question in the Slack general channel and tag me (@kris). If you need to contact me before or after the course, or are having difficulty getting set up on Slack, you can email me. Please allow up to 24 hours for a response, though during summer courses, I tend to respond much more quickly than that during morning and afternoon. Messages sent on Saturday or Sunday will likely not receive a reply until Monday.

Units of study

Week 1 (May 31–June 3): Introduction to auditory memory

Week 2 (June 6–10): Music on the small scale – chords, phrases, rhythm

Week 3 (June 13–17): Schemas, categories, styles

Week 4 (June 20–24): Form, expectation, emotion

Week 5 (June 27–July 1): Final projects and reassessments


Students will be provided with the following informational resources to engage during each unit:

Readings drawn from the required textbooks, and occasional supplemental resources such as scholarly articles from the field.

Videos created by me, which will offer audio/visual explanations of concepts in the reading, demonstrations of how those concepts are applied in specific situations, contradictory perspectives to those expressed in the readings, and alternative explanations.

Core concept lists will be provided for each unit, which will form the basis for assessments.

We will also have a private discussion forum for registered students (Slack) and twice-weekly video-chat office hours. These are the primary places for you to ask questions of clarification, to compare notes with each other as you work on assignments, and for me to ask provocative questions about the readings, videos, and potential points of application.

Assessed coursework will include the following:

  • Introductory materials
  • Reading/video quizzes
  • Conceptual videos
  • Conceptual paragraphs
  • Conceptual mapping
  • Final project

For details and examples, please see the Assignment guide.

Assessment & grades

The most important and interesting aspects of learning are things that are difficult to assess fairly and reductively (i.e., with a single letter). As a result, heavy emphasis on grades tends to undermine alternative perspectives—the exact opposite of what a liberal education should do.

My goal in grading is three-fold: to diminish their significance and the negative impact they can have on the learning environment, to direct your studies clearly (but flexibly), and to make sure that they do carry some meaningful representation of the knowledge and skills you possess and gain by the end of the course.

With that in mind, assessment will be oriented around specific concepts and skills, most of which will be assessed pass/fail. In order to facilitate learning, the bulk of the assessments will allow collaboration in some form.

The final project/reassessments will be worth one letter grade (10% of the final grade). The remainder of the assignments will be of equal value (except for conceptual videos and paragraphs, which will each be worth triple the other assignments), contributing to 90% of the final grade. The entire list can be found on the assignment guide and in the D2L grade book.

Final letter grades will be determined by the percentage of points passed according to the usual 90/80/70/60 scale.

Technical support

Students can obtain technical support for the technologies used in class by consulting (accessible via MyCUInfo), the CU OIT student help desk, and/or the instructor.

See also CU’s Introduction to D2L Platform resource.


For instructor and university policies relevant to this course, please see this page.

About this syllabus

This syllabus is a summary of course objectives and content and a reminder of some relevant university policies, not a contract. All information in this syllabus (except for the “General course description”) is subject to change, with sufficient advanced notice provided by the instructor. I will also consider proposals for changes from students enrolled in the course.