Professor Lauren Stewart

Staff details

PositionProfessor and co-director of the MSc in Music, Mind and Brain
Department Psychology
Email l.stewart (
Phone+44 (0)20 7919 7195
Professor Lauren Stewart

Summary of research

  • Cognitive neuroscience of music;
  • therapeutic uses of music;
  • synaesthesia;
  • musical imagery.

Academic qualifications



MSc in Music Mind and Brain

Areas of supervision

Available to supervise undergraduate, MSc and PhD students in any of the areas listed on my 'research' tab, or in closely-related areas. Please contact me to discuss project opportunities.

Research Interests

My current research falls broadly within the three following areas:

Using Tunes in the Head to understand Spontaneous Cognition

The idea that we have full control over our thought processes is an illusion.  Proust, for instance, discusses a childhood memory, triggered by the taste of a madeleine cookie and numerous examples of spontaneous involuntary cognitions abound.  Although such experiences are valuable hallmarks of our inner mental life, these phenomena do not easily lend themselves to scientific study. However, based on our recent pilot work, it is clear that one type of spontaneous, involuntary cognition – namely, the ‘tune in the head phenomenon’ - holds particular promise for empirical study.  Such episodes of spontaneous musical imagery (SMI) are vivid, can be described in detail and affect 90% of the population at least once a week. As part of a collaboration with the BBC, my research team has developed an online survey instrument ( and collected several thousand reports of SMI episodes. The project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will apply a combination of experimental psychology, computational and cognitive neuroscience approaches to address fundamental questions concerning the content, function and neurobiological origins of SMI experiences.

Fractionating the Musical Mind: Insights from Congenital Amusia

A small percentage of the population report a lifelong failure to recognize familiar tunes or tell one tune from another, frequently complain that music sounds like a “din” and often avoid the many social situations in which music plays a crucial role. Such individuals, termed ‘congenitally amusic’, have lifelong difficulties with music and perform poorly on a standardized battery of musical listening tasks (Peretz, 2003). This disorder provides us with the opportunity to investigate the cognitive architecture of music, and its relation to other domains, such as language and spatial cognition. Using a large group of congenitally amusic individuals, recruited via an online musical listening test (, my present research aims to elucidate precisely which perceptual and cognitive mechanisms are at fault in amusia, whether disordered musical processing has implications for language and the extent to which such difficulties can impact upon sociocultural and affective functioning.  This work is carried out in collaboration with Professor Tim Griffiths at Newcastle University and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Musicians as a Model of Neuroplasticity

Professional pianists must bimanually co-ordinate the production of up to 1800 notes per minute, integrate auditory and sensori-motor information and constantly monitor for errors in performance. The development of these cognitive abilities is the result of intense practise from an early age and provides an ideal model for investigating learning-induced plasticity.  My work has focused specifically on the acquisition of musical literacy, asking questions about the cognitive representation of musical notation and the changes that occur in the brain as musical notation goes from being an impenetrable jumble of dots and lines, into a meaningful code for performance. I am currently interested in examining auditory-motor interactions in trained musicians.




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