Teacher Feature: Robert Hoff

Research and the exploration of new ideas are the backbone of a college education.

Professors in a variety of departments are currently participating in research studies that will open doors in their area of education, and the Mercyhurst psychology department is no exception.

Professor of Psychology Robert Hoff is the department chair and a member of the Mercyhurst Honors Program faculty. He has participated in many studies, but most recently is working on the perception of emotion in music.

Most psychologists agree that it’s not a question of whether humans perceive emotion in music, but how is it is perceived. Hoff and his colleague in Cleveland are tackling this topic from a different angle: how preconceived notions of music affect thoughts and perceptions.

“Some of the research I’ve done is on the influence that other people may have on how you perceive music,” said Hoff. “For example, if you read an article or hear from a music critic that a particular piece of music is regarded as sad or happy, does this affect the way you will judge the music when you hear it?”

Hoff’s theory is that these notions will not only change the way we feel music, but actually change how our minds perceive music.

“During the civil rights movement in the ’60s, African American performers in the jazz field were coming out with a lot of new and powerful sounds. … Critics were writing articles that referred to the music as being angry, almost as if they were thinking that because you were a black man in the ’60s, you must be angry which makes your music angry,” Hoff said.

Later interviews with these artists showed that they weren’t trying to portray anger in their music at all. Hoff thought this was unfortunate because it seemed these critics were really biasing the way in which other people heard the music.

To find out if this is true, Hoff and his colleague created an experiment in which students listened and commented on musical pieces. Half of the students were given a critic’s review using emotional language traits like angry or sad. The other half weren’t given any prior material.

“The results of the study concluded that the majority of the students that read an article regarding the music as angry would then say that they too interpret the music as being angry,” Hoff said.

Hoff believes that through further research we can slow down or even stop this process. For Hoff, it is a matter of understanding how the human mind works and understanding how to overcome certain obstacles.

“It’s sort of like what students learn in a variety of classes and that is critical thinking. You want to be able to make your own decisions,” said Hoff. “So part of my research on the perception of emotion in music is not to be too influenced by what journalists and critics have said about the music but to be able to think around that and interpret for ourselves.”