One regret, one hope with Raymond MacDonald

Reading time: 4 minutes
In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.

This week Mona’s guest is Professor Raymond MacDonald, Chair of Music Psychology and Improvisation in the Reid School of Music.

Mona Siddiqui: Tell us a little bit about your work and research at the University.

Raymond MacDonald: I’m a psychologist by training, but I work in the Reid School of Music. My research stems from the premise that we are all musical; that every human being has a biological and social guarantee of musicianship. That’s no longer a vague, utopian ideal, if you like, it’s very much a well-evidenced assertion.

I’m very interested in increasing access to musical activities for people that might not have the chance to explore their creativity through music, whether that’s people with learning difficulties or physical handicaps. I’m also interested in people that maybe don’t have access to playing a conventional musical instrument and giving them a chance to play. I’m very interested in therapeutic applications of music – looking at the way music can be used to enhance wellbeing, increase our mood and reduce pain perceptions.

I’m also interested in musical identities; how we see ourselves as musical and how we use music as a psychological resource for constructing a personality.

MS: You’ve stated in the past that the earliest communication between parent and child is musical. What do you mean by that?

RM: The pioneer of that particular work was a professor here called Colwyn Trevarthen, a psychobiologist in the psychology department. He was able to show that the cooing and babbling interactions that take place between a parent and a new-born baby are essentially musical. They have more in common with music and musical interaction than with natural language.

So music plays a fundamental role in the earliest and most important bonding relationship of our life. The patterns of interaction laid down in those early weeks and months will influence us for the rest of our life and they are essentially musical.

MS: Following on from that, are you saying that in some ways, we might have a very narrow definition of what music is?

RM: Absolutely! Without wanting to sound too dramatic, I think that within the conceptions of Western culture, I think we’re a culture of musical underachievers. So many times when I speak to people they say I wish I had followed my passion to play music, or I remember when I was at school I didn’t get the chance to play music. So many people have a desire to play music but feel unmusical and I think a lot of our work is about trying to celebrate universality of human creativity and the universal potential that we all have to be musical.

MS: Why do you think music drops off our radar then? Even though a lot of us listen to music, it doesn’t have maybe the same status as other subjects. Music seems to be on the periphery.

RM: Yes, and it’s not just an educational or psychological issue, it’s a political issue as well. There’s a lot of evidence to show that, for example, when children are becoming adolescents, they use music as a very important signifier of their identity – the clothes that they wear, the friendships they have, the places they socialise, the websites they look at are all crucially influenced by music. They become really interested in their own musicality.

But at this point, interest in formal music making often drops off. At primary school all children engage in music and musical activities, but at secondary school children loose that passion and that interest in music. I think that’s partly to do with the way in which musical activities are constructed within broader society. Often music is seen as something that you only do if you have formal music lessons or music is something for the privileged. And often the way in which music is delivered in schools and the way in which institutions prioritise certain subjects diminishes the importance that music has. 

MS: So there’s a sense that music has to be learnt before it can be enjoyed, and you’re saying that that shouldn’t be the case.

RM: Absolutely not, and I think when we see children engaging with music you can see that enjoyment that comes from communication, from being together in a group, from having fun together and not necessarily the enjoyment that comes from having advanced technical skills.

MS: And you’re a saxophonist yourself aren’t you? Do you enjoy playing music more or do you prefer teaching?

RM: There’s a question! I feel really lucky. I have no music qualifications myself but I’ve performed and played music all my life. I play concerts and record and rehearse all the time – it’s a huge part of my life. But actually, I enjoy teaching probably just as much. I enjoy lecturing, I enjoy communicating with students, I enjoy the sharing of ideas, and I find teaching just as exciting as performing.

MS: Looking at your recent or distant past, is there one regret you can share with us today?

RM: My mother’s family are Italian and when I was younger the older generation would all speak Italian with each other so I regret that I didn’t take the opportunity when my relatives were alive to learn Italian with them.

MS: And what’s the one hope you carry forward?

RM: I know this might sound trite but I think we’re in such desperate political times right now that I really hope that we’ve reached the bottom of what is this neo-liberal capitalist global journey that we’re on and that the geo-politics around the world becomes a little bit brighter.